Years of engineering research and design, together with uncounted billions of dollars from government and industry, went into the development of the modern petroleum industry. It would be unreasonable to expect that we can replace this industry with greener alternatives without a similarly expansive and sustained effort. Point in case is a recently published roadmap to 'Next Generation Hydrocarbon Biorefineries' that outlines a number of novel process pathways for biofuels production based on scientific and engineering proofs of concept demonstrated in laboratories around the world. The key conclusion from this (U.S.-centric) report is that 'while the U.S. has made a significant investment in technologies focusing on breaking the biological barriers to biofuels, principally ethanol, there has not been a commensurate investment in the research needed to break the chemical and engineering barriers to hydrocarbon fuels such as gasoline, diesel, and jet fuel.' This statement of course holds true not only for biofuels but for any kind of green energy technology. The production of ethanol from corn has come under intense scrutiny and discussion for its potential environmental and economic side effects. Advances in agriculture and biotechnology have made it possible to inexpensively produce lignocellulosic biomass (plant biomass that is composed of cellulose and lignin) at costs that are significantly lower (about $15 per barrel of oil energy equivalent) than crude oil. The key bottleneck for lignocellulosic-derived biofuels is the lack of technology for the efficient conversion of biomass into liquid fuels. Advances in nanotechnology have given us an unprecedented ability to understand and control chemistry at the molecular scale, which promises to accelerate the development of biomass-to-fuels production technologies.
Only 30% of all freshwater on the planet is not locked up in ice caps or glaciers (not for much longer, though). Of that, some 20% is in areas too remote for humans to access and of the remaining 80% about three-quarters comes at the wrong time and place - in monsoons and floods - and is not always captured for use by people. The remainder is less than 0.08 of 1% of the total water on the planet. Expressed another way, if all the earth's freshwater were stored in a 5-liter container, available fresh water would not quite fill a teaspoon. The problem is that we don't manage this teaspoon very well. Currently, 600 million people face water scarcity. Depending on future rates of population growth, between 2.7 billion and 3.2 billion people may be living in either water-scarce or water-stressed conditions by 2025. Freshwater looks like it will become the oil of the 21st century - scarce, expensive and the reason for armed conflicts. While in our previous article we have only talked about nanotechnology and water in general terms, a new paper gives us the opportunity to look in more detail at the role that nanotechnology could play in resolving issues relating to water shortage and water quality. This review highlights the uses of nanotechnology in areas relevant to water purification, including separation and reactive media for water filtration, as well as nanomaterials and nanoparticles for use in water bioremediation and disinfection.
Diatoms are a major group of hard-shelled algae and one of the most common types of phytoplankton. A characteristic feature of diatom cells is that they are encased within a unique cell wall made of silica. Silicate materials are very important in nature and they are closely related to the evolution of living organisms. Diatom walls show a wide diversity in form, some quite beautiful and ornate, but usually consist of two symmetrical sides with a split between them, hence the group name. There is great potential for the use of diatoms in nanotechnology. This potential lies in the pores and channels which give rise to a greatly increased surface area, and the silica structure which lends itself to chemical modification. In addition there is a huge variety in the sizes and shapes of diatoms available, providing scope for the selection of a particular species of diatom tailored to a particular requirement. Researchers in the UK have demonstrated that the silica walls of diatoms can be used for the attachment of active biomolecules, such as antibodies, using either primary amine groups or the carbohydrate moiety. These modified structures can, therefore, be used for antibody arrays or for use in techniques such as immunoprecipitation.
One statement of the second law of thermodynamics is that the efficiency of any heat engine or other thermodynamic process is always less that 100%. There will always be some type of friction or other inefficiency that will generate waste heat. The useful work that a heat engine can perform will therefore always be less than the energy put into the system. Engines must be cooled, as a radiator cools a car engine, because they generate waste heat. While there is no way around the second law of thermodynamics, the performance of today's power generation technology is quite appalling. The average efficiency today for fossil-fired power generation, 35% for coal, 45% for natural gas and 38% for oil-fired power generation. By the way, be skeptical when people tell you that nuclear power is good in the fight against global warming - nuclear power plants have a worse thermal efficiency (30-33%) than fossil-fired plants. Approximately 90% of the world's power is generated in such a highly inefficient way. In other words: every year some 15 billion kilowatts of heat is dumped into the atmosphere during power generation (talk about fueling global warming...). This is roughly the same amount as the total power consumption of the world in 2004. Reducing these inefficiencies would go a long way in solving the coming energy and climate problems. Thermoelectric materials - which can directly convert heat into electricity - could potentially convert part of this low-grade waste heat. Problem is that good thermoelectric materials are scarce and so far solid-state heat pumps have proven too inefficient to be practical. Two papers in this week's Nature describe how silicon devices could in principle be adapted and possibly scaled up for this purpose.
Just because hydrogen is a clean fuel doesn't mean that hydrogen production is a clean process. As more and more companies and investors jump onto the 'cleantech' bandwagon, hydrogen occupies an important place in this vision of a sustainable, carbon-free, and non-polluting energy future. If you look closer though, you'll find that you are not always told the full story about "clean" hydrogen. The U.S. department of Energy's Hydrogen Energy Roadmap foresees up to 90% of hydrogen production coming from fossil fuels - coal, gas, oil. In other words, a clean fuel is produced by the same dirty fuel that is causing all the problems we are facing today (read more in our recent Spotlight: Nanotechnology could clean up the hydrogen car's dirty little secret). Hydrogen can be produced in a clean way, of course, but the greatest challenge to clean hydrogen production is cost - so far, the cheapest way today to produce hydrogen is from fossil fuels. And as long as the political will and the resulting large-scale funding isn't there, this won't change. Unfortunately, large-scale deployment of artificial water-splitting technologies looks unlikely given the need for large amounts of expensive precious metals - such as platinum, which currently cost about $45,000 per kilogram, and which will become scarce at some point in the future - required to catalyze the multi electron water-splitting reactions. Intriguingly, there are mechanism of biological hydrogen activation found in nature and researchers have identified several microbes that can activate the dihydrogen bond through the catalytic activity of hydrogenases (enzymes that play a vital role in anaerobic metabolism). Scientists hope that these proteins could one day serve as catalysts for hydrogen production and oxidation in fuel cells. So far, their efforts have been hampered by the difficulty of incorporating these enzymes into electrical devices because the enzymes do not form good electrical connections with fuel cell components. New research now demonstrates the first successful electrical connection between a carbon nanotube and hydrogenase.
Earlier this year, the Science Policy Council of the U.S. Environmental Protection EPA (EPA) issued the final version of its Nanotechnology White Paper. The purpose of this White Paper is to inform EPA management of the science issues and needs associated with nanotechnology, to support related EPA program office needs, and to communicate these nanotechnology science issues to stakeholders and the public. While this has been the publicly most visible EPA activity with regard to nanotechnology, it is less widely known that the EPA, since 2002, has been spending more than $25 million through its Science to Achieve Results (STAR) grants program for 86 projects on research into the environmental aspects of nanotechnology. The projects are broadly grouped into two main categories: 1) nanotechnology applications - examining beneficial uses - where the areas of research include green manufacturing, contamination remediation, sensors for environmental pollutants, and waste treatment; and 2) nanotechnology implications - examining the potentially adverse health effects to humans and the environment - where research is grouped into five categories: aerosol, exposure assessment, fate and transport, life-cycle analysis, and toxicity.
Freshwater looks like it will become the oil of the 21st century - scarce, expensive and fought over. While over 70 per cent of the Earth's surface is covered by water, most of it is unusable for human consumption. According to the Government of Canada's Environment Department (take a look at their Freshwater Website - a great resource for facts and all kinds of aspects about water), freshwater lakes, rivers and underground aquifers represent only 2.5 per cent of the world's total freshwater supply. Unfortunately, in addition to being scarce, freshwater is also very unevenly distributed. The United Nations has compared water consumption with its availability and has predicted that by the middle of this century between 2 billion and 7 billion people will be faced with water scarcity. It gets worse: In the developing countries, 80 per cent of illnesses are water-related. Due to the shortage of safe drinking water in much of the world, there are 3.3 million deaths every year from diarrheal diseases caused by E. coli, salmonella and cholera bacterial infections, and from parasites and viral pathogens. In fact, between 1990 and 2000, more children died of diarrhea than all the people killed in armed conflicts since the Second World War. The use of nanotechnologies in four key water industry segments - monitoring, desalinization, purification and wastewater treatment - could play a large role in averting the coming water crisis. But hoping that the 'magic' of nanotechnology will solve all water problems is naive - the basic problems of accessibility to technologies, affordability, and fair distribution still need to be solved.
A revolutionary new environmental biotechnology - the Microbial Fuel Cell - turns the treatment of organic wastes into a source of electricity. Fuel cell technology, despite its recent popularity as a possible solution for a fossil-fuel free future, is actually quite old. The principle of the fuel cell was discovered by German scientist Christian Friedrich Schoenbein in 1838 and published in 1839. Based on this work, the first fuel cell was developed by Welsh scientist Sir William Robert Grove in 1843. The operating principle of a fuel cell is fairly straightforward. It is an electrochemical energy conversion device that converts the chemical energy from fuel (on the anode side) and oxidant (on the cathode side) directly into electricity. Today, there are many competing types of fuel cells, depending on what kind of fuel and oxidant they use. Many combinations of fuel and oxidant are possible. For instance, hydrogen cell uses hydrogen as fuel and oxygen as oxidant. Other fuels include hydrocarbons and alcohols. An interesting - but not commercially viable yet - variant of the fuel cell is the microbial fuel cell (MFC) where bacteria oxidize compounds such as glucose, acetate or wastewater. Researchers in Spain have fabricated multi-walled carbon nanotube (MWCNT) scaffolds with a micro-channel structure in which bacteria can grow. This scaffold structure could be used as electrodes in microbial fuel cells.