As it is becoming clearer that one of the critical issues for developing functional nanomachines is the generation of energy required to power them, research into developing nanoscale energy sources has been picking up substantially. The energy to be fed into a nanogenerator is likely to be mechanical energy that is converted into electric energy that then will be used to power nanodevices without using a battery. With the emergence of nanotechnology and the use of nanomaterials, the field of piezoelectrics and nanopiezotronics has experienced a lot of new and interesting research efforts. Researchers in Korea have now demonstrated the first use of chemical vapor deposition-grown large-scale graphene sheets as transparent electrodes for fully transparent and flexible nanogenerators.
Bioethanol, unlike petroleum, is a form of renewable energy that can be produced from common agricultural feedstocks such as sugar cane or corn. Ethanol is already widely used in siome countries, mainly as biofuel additive for gasoline. The tremendous hype about bioethanol in the past few years has now been followed by a debate about how useful bioethanol actually can replace gasoline. Concerns about its production and use relate to the large amount of arable land required for crops, as well as the energy and pollution balance of the whole cycle of ethanol production. Recent developments with cellulosic ethanol production and commercialization may allay some of these concerns. It offers the promise that any plant material, from grass to wood, and not just edible crops, could be used in the production of ethanol fuels. Consequently, cellulosic ethanol could allow ethanol fuels to play a much bigger role in the future than previously thought. With regard to cellulosic production and commercialization, bioethanol production from woody biomass by enzymatic hydrolysis of cellulosic components and fermentation has attracted much attention.
Materials that can produce electricity are at the core of piezoelectric research and the vision of self-powering machines and devices. With the emergence of nanotechnology and the use of nanomaterials, the field of piezoelectrics and nanopiezotronics has experienced a lot of new and interesting research efforts. A recent study, for instance, has demonstrated that the small vibrational energy waste generated in the environment from noise, wind power, running water, or water wave action can be scavenged or harvested as a driving force for direct water splitting. The researchers propose a new piezoelectrochemical mechanism for the direct conversion of mechanical energy to chemical energy and subsequently the splitting of water into hydrogen and oxygen.
Artificial photosynthesis can offer a clean and portable source of energy supply as durable as the sunlight. Using sunlight to split water molecules and form hydrogen fuel is one of the most promising tactics for kicking our carbon habit. Of the possible methods, nature provides the blueprint for converting solar energy in the form of chemical fuels. A natural leaf is a synergy of the elaborated structures and functional components to produce a highly complex machinery for photosynthesis in which light harvesting, photoinduced charge separation, and catalysis modules combined to capture solar energy and split water into oxygen and hydrogen efficiently. Chinese researchers have now demonstrated the design of an efficient, cost-effective artificial system to mimic photosynthesis by copying the elaborate architectures of green leaves, replacing the natural photosynthetic pigments with man-made catalysts and thereby realizing water splitting- a major advance in energy conversion.
Nanotechnology catalytical techniques are having a profound impact on clean energy research and development, ranging from hydrogen and liquid fuel production to clean combustion technologies. In this area, catalyst stability is paramount for technical application, and remains a major challenge, even for many conventional catalysts. Thermal stability in particular is a challenge across many currently discussed technical applications and an obstacle for many nanocatalyst-enabled devices, from sensors to fuel production. In particular fuel processing technologies (hydrogen and/or liquid fuel production from fossil and renewable resources, clean combustion) typically proceed at particularly severe conditions (high temperatures, high through-put, contaminated fuel streams, etc) and hence require particular attention to catalyst stabilization, but even many processes at much lower temperature conditions, such as fuel cells, are still looking for catalysts with improved stability.
Due to their unique structural and electrical properties, carbon nanotubes have been extensively investigated as promising catalyst supports to improve the efficiency of direct ethanol/methanol fuel cells. CNTs have a significantly higher electronic conductivity and an extremely higher specific surface area in comparison with the most widely-used Vulcan XC-72R carbon support. Several approaches, such as electrochemical reduction, electroless deposition, spontaneous reduction, sonochemical technique, microwave-heated polyol process, and nanoparticle decoration on chemically oxidized nanotube sidewalls, have been reported to form CNT-supported platinum catalysts. Some remarkable progress has been made in synthesis techniques; however, pioneering breakthroughs have not been made yet in terms of cost-effectiveness catalyst activity, durability, and chemical-electrochemical stability. Nanotechnology researchers in the U.S. have now discovered that platinum nanoparticles selectively grow on carbon nanotubes in accordance with single-stranded DNA locations.
The batteries that power our everyday devices, from laptop computers, to mobile phones, watches, toys and flashlights, are a major source of pollution. The average household in the Western world uses about 20 batteries a year, resulting in hundreds of thousands of tons of discarded batteries that end up in landfills. When the battery casing corrodes, toxic heavy metals like mercury and cadmium can leak out and pollute soil and ground water. Researchers have been working on non-metal batteries but so far the performance of the used materials has not been good enough for commercial applications. One way to improve the performance of nonmetal-based energy storage devices is to use composite electrode materials of conductive polymers, deposited as thin layers on a suitable large surface area substrate. Researchers have now developed a novel polypyrrole-cellulose composite electrode material that is mechanically robust, lightweight, and flexible.
In today's Spotlight we take a look at a specific example of the challenges researchers face in improving fuel cell technology and the important role that modern laboratory instruments such as electron microscopes play in their work. Fuel cells have gained a lot of attention because they provide a potential solution to our addiction to fossil fuels. Energy production from oil, coal and gas is an extremely polluting, not to mention wasteful, process that consists of heat extraction from fuel by burning it, conversion of that heat to mechanical energy, and transformation of that mechanical energy into electrical energy. In contrast, fuel cells are electrochemical devices that convert a fuel's chemical energy directly to electrical energy with high efficiency and without combustion (although fuel cells operate similar to batteries, an important difference is that batteries store energy, while fuel cells can produce electricity continuously as long as fuel and air are supplied).