Three good reasons to do nanotechnology: 1. For a sustainable energy economy

When I was in Norway a few months ago, I was talking to an official from their research council about the Norwegian national nanotechnology strategy. He explained how they were going to focus on a few appplication areas for nanotechnology, starting with nanotechnology for energy, nanotechnology for medicine, and nanotechnology for information technology. Thus far his list was very similar to lists being compiled by just about everybody else in the world. Then he went on to explain that the fourth area would be nanotechnology for fish and I had to admit to myself that the latter focus probably would be nationally distinctive. Fish apart, there does seem to be a widespread consensus that the other three areas are the ones in which nanotechnology is likely to make the biggest global impact, at least on the short to medium term. It’s worth summarising some of the arguments for this order of priority.

1. Nanotechnology for a sustainable energy economy. This comes first because our current way of life is utterly dependent on cheap and abundant energy, and there are no easy ways of significantly lessening this dependence. Yet the cheap energy that we’ve come to rely on is threatened in multiple ways. The need to reduce CO2 emissions to combat climate change is growing in urgency, the geopolitical implications of such a vital commodity being in the control of people and nations whose interests may not be the same as ours are becoming more and more obvious, and the prospect of the exhaustion of the most convenient forms of fossil fuel – gas and oil – is appearing on the horizon. It’s no surprise, the, that both private sector investments and government funded research in nanotechnology is increasingly being directed in applications to energy.

So, how could nanotechnology make an impact on our evolving energy economy? Let’s look at this in three categories:

1. Primary energy sources. At the moment, the ultimate sources of most of our energy are oil and gas, either used directly or converted into electricity, and electricity made by burning coal or by harnessing nuclear fission. Renewables – primarily hydroelectric at the moment, with wind power growing, make a small contribution. Nanotechnology’s most significant potential contribution is in the area of solar energy, where alternative photovoltaics capable of being produced cheaply in the very large areas needed to supply significant amounts of power are on the horizon.

2. Energy for transportation. Our societies are dependent on large scale mobility, both personal and for the movement of goods across the world. Liquid hydrocarbons – in the form of petrol, diesel and aviation kerosene – are convenient, high energy density fuels, and a massive infrastructure exists to distribute them. The “hydrogen economy” offers an alternative, in which the transport fuel would be hydrogen, made using primary energy sources like solar energy, nuclear energy, or a combination of fossil fuel use with CO2 sequestration. Nanotechnology could help overcome some of the formidable technical barriers to this scheme, by making possible safe, high density storage for energy and by improving the performance and price of fuel cells. On the other hand, as the recognition of the economic and technical barriers to a hydrogen economy grows, the alternative of a “methanol economy” grows more attractive in some people’s eyes. Using methanol as a transportation fuel has the great advantage that one can use the existing infrastructure for distributing liquid fuels, and continue to use internal combustion engines. An ideal would be to make methanol directly using solar energy to combine water and carbon dioxide – photocatalytic reduction of carbon dioxide. This is something we know ought to be possible in principle, but we don’t know how to do it yet.

3. Lowering the energy intensity of the economy. There are a host of possible incremental improvements in materials and processes to reduce the amount of primary energy needed to produce a given amount of economic output. Individually these may not look spectacular, but together the effect may be very significant. This ranges from more efficient light sources such as light emitting diodes, better materials for building insulation to better materials and coatings allowing turbine blades to be operated hotter, leading to higher energy conversion efficiencies in power stations.

Next – nanotechnology for medicine and health

7 thoughts on “Three good reasons to do nanotechnology: 1. For a sustainable energy economy”

  1. This is a good list.

    I think there’s another important area where nanotechnology might contribute and that is carbon sequestration. It’s clear that we will continue to burn oil, gas and especially coal for a long time to come, so we will need sequestration technologies regardless of the development of sustainable energy technologies.

    You mention the potential use of carbon dioxide to make methanol but the carbon dioxide is released again when the methanol is used so that doesn’t count for this application. Capturing carbon dioxide in a building material to replace cement could be one useful possibility.

  2. I’m sure carbon sequestration will be important, but what’s proposed at the moment is essentially heavy engineering and I don’t know what nanotechnology can add (but… see the end of the next comment).

    As for using carbon dioxide to make methanol, it depends of course where the CO2 comes from. If you use CO2 from a fossil fuel power station, you are still ultimately releasing the CO2, it’s true, but you’re getting one further pass of energy out of it before you do, which is a step forward. It would be better, of course, to use CO2 from the atmosphere, in which case the overall process would be carbon neutral. But you could use the methanol as a feedstock to make plastic, for example, which would effectively take CO2 out of the atmosphere. Making non-biodegradable plastic from CO2 and then burying it would be a very effective way of sequestering CO2. I foresee a day when people are forced to accept more plastic bags in supermarkets and are positively discouraged from recycling them!

  3. Dave,
    The best idea i’ve heard for carbon sequestration is bio-char. You make charcoal from plants and mix it into the soil up to 6%. It does not bio degrade like compost, it remains around for centuries, it provides a structure for micro flora and fauna to live. It helps the soil maintain water and nutrients. It is a win-win.

  4. Richard, Using methanol as a feedstock is definitely a much better use for climate control purposes than using it as a fuel. Mea culpa for missing that possibility. I’d rather see it used to make polymers that can act as binders in building materials or as engineered materials in their own right than see them buried in the ground!

    But to be really valuable, I think the carbon dioxide does have to come from the atmosphere rather than in concentrated form in the exhaust of fossil fuel consumption. That’s an unsolved problem as far as I know and is where I was hoping soft nanotechnology in particular might have some aspirations.

    Jim, I agree that using biochar appears to be an excellent scheme. Loss of topsoil is another problem that’s recently received some attention and biochar will help. Is it likely that we could build up and sustain biochar production at such a rate as to be a climate war winning solution, though?

    Incidentally, in another bit of google-driven browsing, I found this interesting piece on biochar:

    I also found the first couple of pieces on the home page fascinating and this quote was irresistible: ‘Basic research would go on even with no government or charity funding. Its main function is not research progress, however, but signaling impressive abilities’.

  5. “An ideal would be to make methanol directly using solar energy to combine water and carbon dioxide – photocatalytic reduction of carbon dioxide. This is something we know ought to be possible in principle, but we don’t know how to do it yet.”

    Have any links or papers about this research target? Making methanol in an emissions-free manufacturing process would be a nice incremental improvement, much like gasification is for utility coal powerplants. Of course, any process that could cost-effectively remove CO2 from air might be the most important invention of the 21st century, whether or not fuel is a by-product.

    Has anyone considered zeolites for a solid-state hydrogen economy? H-SSZ-13 has been identified to store a lot of hydrogen. Not enough for DOE vehicle requirements, but could certainly make power generation interesting. All I know about this is from an abstract. Why are things so quiet from this research avenue, and other solid-state hydrogen storage avenues like Amminex’s NH3 salts? Is there still basic chemistry to be worked out or are they dealing with process engineering challenges?

    Over the long-term CNTs could eventually be used to make big power transmission advances.

  6. Also consider geo-engineering to mitigate the warming effects of increased CO2. Nanoengineered particles might be fine tuned to block sunlight either in the upper atmosphere or in space. Albedo could be controlled as well. Or perhaps Rob Freitas’ aerovores can solve the problem, making more of themselves from just CO2, O2 and H2O in the air.

  7. The biochar idea reminds me that Markus Antonietti, at the Max Planck Institute for Colloids, is pushing a similar idea that essentially amounts to making coal from biomass.

    As for the methanol economy in general, there’s quite a lot of stuff. George Olah is the highest profile protagonist. On the specific question of photocatalytic reduction of CO2 to make the methanol, there’s much less that I’m aware of.

    I suspect that zeolites have indeed been considered for hydrogen storage, but I’d need to look things up to be sure.

    Hal, I still think that pushing geo-engineering is a counsel of despair; things may come to that but it’s a very worrying thing to propose to do given our present ignorance and uncertainty about how our atmosphere and climate works.

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