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What Does Nanotechnology Mean for Energy, Environment?

By Erin McNeill
December 9, 2007

Early next year, an advanced nanotech lithium-ion battery will allow a Toyota Prius owner to plug the car into a standard outlet to quickly charge it up for the days commute. The batteries are on hardware store shelves now, inside DeWalt saws and other cordless power tools.

Meanwhile, a printing press will start to roll in San Jose, Calif., churning out foil by the yard imprinted with an ink made of nano-sized solar cell particles. The new process eventually could make it economical to turn any conceivable surface into a solar power collector.

Advocates say these advances mark the beginning of what will be a revolution in energy efficiency and environmental protection using nanotechnology the manufacture of materials measured at the scale of 1 nanometer to 100 nanometers. The head of a pin is a million nanometers wide.

Yet lurking beneath the excitement is the unknown risk of releasing into the environment particles no bigger than atoms that can go where conventional-sized particles cannot, such as through the smallest filters or across cell membranes into cells, many advocates acknowledge.

Coming Soon

Experts say big changes are just around the corner.

It is no longer a dream, says Mihail Roco, the key architect of the National Nanotechnology Initiative, Americas $8 billion investment in the science and engineering research expected to revolutionize technology and industry. It is happening in the lab. It is now just a matter of economics.

Global investment is moving toward nano-energy and environment. According to nanotechnology analyst Lux Research, worldwide government investment in research and development of nanotechnology with environmental benefits was $1.1 billion in 2006, a 16 percent increase over 2005. Venture capital investment in the sector what Lux calls nano-enabled cleantech was $292 million in 2006, a 91 percent increase over 2005.

The United States spends 15 percent of the research and development funds allocated under the nanotechnology initiative on cleantech, according to Lux. In 2006, that would have been about $200 million.

Most of the attention and money in this sector is focused on energy. The new lithium-ion batteries can store more energy and charge in one-tenth the time, overcoming one of the primary limitations of electric vehicles. And the new products lack a drawback of conventional lithium batteries: They dont burst into flames at high temperatures.

A123 Systems batteries the ones found in the power tools, not to mention KillaCycle, an electric motorcycle that can be seen breaking speed records on YouTube will convert a 45-mile-per-gallon hybrid Prius into a 150-mile-per-gallon plug-in automobile at about $10,000 installed.

This demonstrates proof positive that this can be done. It begins to provide benefits in the near term, says A123 chief David Vieau, who says he expects thousands of vehicle conversions next year and tens of thousands in the next few years.

Another nano start-up, Altairnano, will roll out its nano-enabled batteries for use by commercial fleets in California next year.

At the same time, solar energy collectors are getting thinner and cheaper through the use of nano-sized materials. They are not yet economical for widespread use, says Roco, but there are currently installations of the super-thin solar cell panels in use in some specialized situations, such as large commercial applications, and even on expensive houses in Germany, Switzerland, the Netherlands and Japan. Nanosolar of San Jose is said to use printing press technology to apply a nano-sized solar cell to a thin film, a method that could make the cells economically viable by making them much cheaper to produce.

However, according to solar energy expert Nathan S. Lewis, a chemistry professor at the California Institute of Technology, efficiency is still a major drawback to the current generation of nanotech-solar products.

The thin film solar cells may be cheap enough that owners of houses and commercial facilities could buy all they need to power their buildings, but there is a maximum roof size, Lewis points out. Its not just cost per watt but also absolute efficiency.

And, despite battery advances, storage of power for use at night remains a gap in the solar energy equation, he says.

Possibly more important in terms of economic reach, but less glamorous, are catalysts used widely in the chemical manufacturing and petroleum refining industries, experts say.

Catalysts are used to boost chemical reactions, which take place at the interface of two materials. A given quantity of a chemical made up of nano-sized particles has a vastly greater amount of surface area than the same quantity of the chemical at a conventional size, and as a result reactions using the nano-sized catalyst can consume less energy and generate less waste. David Rejeski, director of the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, says, If these industries can work more efficiently, it can have a real ripple effect across the economy.

According to the chemical research firm SRI Consulting, catalysts are used in making more than 20 percent of all industrial products, such as plastic and tires.

Michael Holman, senior analyst at Lux Research, says the Dow Chemical Co. is already saving $35 million to $50 million a year with nano-catalysts.

Yet Innovation in nanotechnology is being threatened by the uncertainty about its risks, said Vicki L. Colvin, executive director of the International Council on Nanotechnology at Rice University at a hearing of the House Science Subcommittee on Research and Science Education last month.

While nanotechnologies offer new approaches to cleaning the environment and may help the United States achieve energy independence, she said, … fewer of these transformative technologies will make it into commerce if the technology transfer pipeline becomes clogged by concerns about nanoproduct safety.

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