Nanotechnology applications could provide decisive technological breakthroughs in the energy sector and have a considerable impact on creating the sustainable energy supply that is required to make the transition from fossil fuels. Possibilities range from gradual short- and medium-term improvements for a more efficient use of conventional and renewable energy sources all the way to completely new long-term approaches for energy recovery and utilization. With enough political will - and funding - nanotechnology could make essential contributions to sustainable energy supply and global climate protection policies. The technological foundation is there, all it takes is political leadership to create the right research and investment conditions to make it happen.
You might have seen the news article that made the rounds a few days ago about how the stained glass windows in medieval churches actually were a nanotechnology application capable of purifying air. While this is a pretty cool headline to capture readers' interest, the underlying finding is much more profound and could open up a new direction in catalysis and herald significant changes in the economy and environmental impact of chemical production. One of the great challenges for catalysis is to find catalysts which can work well under visible light. If scientists manage to crack this problem it would mean that we could use sunlight - the ultimate free, abundant and 'green' energy source - to drive chemical reactions. This is in contrast to today's conventional chemical reactions that often require high temperatures and therefore waste a lot of energy.
While everybody talks about oil prices, water scarcity and water pollution are two increasingly pressing problems that could easily and quickly surpass the oil issue. Renewable energy sources can substitute for fossil fuels - but freshwater can't be replaced. This makes the ability to remove toxic contaminants from aquatic environments rapidly, efficiently, and within reasonable costs an important technological challenge. Nanotechnology could play an important role in this regard. An active emerging area of research is the development of novel nanomaterials with increased affinity, capacity, and selectivity for heavy metals and other contaminants. The benefits from use of nanomaterials may derive from their enhanced reactivity, surface area and sequestration characteristics. Numerous nanomaterials are in various stages of research and development, each possessing unique functionalities that are potentially applicable to the remediation of industrial wastewater, groundwater, surface water and drinking water. The main goal for most of this research is to develop low-cost and environmentally friendly materials for removal of heavy metals from water. A recent example is a novel low-cost magnetic sorbent material for the removal of heavy metal ions from water, developed by scientists in China.
Radioactive material is toxic because it creates ions when it reacts with biological molecules. These ions can form free radicals, which damage proteins, membranes, and nucleic acids. Free radicals damage components of the cells' membranes, proteins or genetic material by "oxidizing" them - the same chemical reaction that causes iron to rust. This is called 'oxidative stress'. Many forms of cancer are thought to be the result of reactions between free radicals and DNA, resulting in mutations that can adversely affect the cell cycle and potentially lead to malignancy. Nanotechnology has provided numerous constructs that reduce oxidative damage in engineering applications with great efficiency. As a new research report shows, nanotechnology applications could also help to remediate radioactive contamination at the source, by removing radioactive ions from the environment. Environmental contamination with radioactive ions that originate from the processing of uranium or the leakage of nuclear reactors is a potential serious health threat because it can leach into groundwater and contaminate drinking water supplies for large population areas. The key issue in developing technologies for the removal of radioactive ions from the environment and their subsequent safe disposal is to devise materials which are able to absorb radioactive ions irreversibly, selectively, efficiently, and in large quantities from contaminated water.
Remember the movie blockbuster Erin Brockovich? The film is based on a real world legal case that revolves around hexavalent chromium, also known as chromium (VI), used by the Pacific Gas and Electric Company to control corrosion in cooling towers in its Hinkley, CA compressor station. Chromium (VI), a natural metal, is known to be toxic and is recognized as a human carcinogen via inhalation. It also is widely used by industry in the manufacture of stainless steel, welding, painting and pigment application, electroplating, and other surface coating processes. Researchers in Germany now have developed a novel method of multilayer anticorrosion protection including the surface pre-treatment by sonication and deposition of polyelectrolytes and inhibitors. This method results in the formation of a smart polymer nanonetwork for environmentally friendly organic inhibitors.
Olive oil is good for your health. Unfortunately, the production of olive oil is not. During the olive oil production process, olive oil mills produce a liquid waste called olive black water or olive-oil-mill wastewater (OMW). This waste water has significant polluting properties due to its high levels of chemical oxygen demand (COD), biochemical oxygen demand (BOD), and phenols. In Mediterranean countries, which account for approximately 95% of the worldwide olive oil production, the annual amount of OMW is estimated to be over 30 million cubic meters. Disposal of OMV has therefore always been an important issue in this region especially since conventional wastewater treatment methods are relatively ineffective for removing the kind of pollutants found in OMW. On the other hand, OMW may also be regarded as an inexpensive biomass source of inorganic and organic compounds. Using suitable separation processes, these compounds can be recovered and transformed into products for use in agriculture, environmental biotechnology processes, and industry. New research has now investigated the interaction of complexing dissolved organic matter with aluminum oxide nanoparticles.
Advanced material engineering techniques can structure surfaces that allow dynamic tuning of their wettability all the way from superhydrophobic (i.e. repelling) behavior to almost complete wetting (i.e. superhydrophilic or strongly absorbing) - but these surfaces only work with high-surface-tension liquids. Almost all organic liquids that are ubiquitous in human environment such as oils, solvents, detergents, etc. have fairly low surface tensions and thus readily wet even superhydrophobic surfaces. In a previous Spotlight we reported how researchers have been creating surfaces that would extend superhydrophobic behavior to all liquids, no matter what the surface tension. New work coming out of MIT now describes a novel nanostructures membrane that can be switched between superhydrophilic and superhydrophobic behavior on demand. Think of it as an 'oil spill clean-up paper towel' that absorbs only the oil but not the water. Given the global scale of severe water pollution arising from oil spills and industrial organic pollutants, this nanomaterial may prove particularly useful in the design of recyclable absorbents with significant environmental impact.
It wasn't market forces that landed a man on the moon; and It wasn't market forces that led France to build a nuclear energy infrastructure that now enables it to generate some 75% of its entire energy needs from nuclear power (just an example of what energy policy can do; let's not get into a discussion here of nuclear energy, though). But somehow, the leading political and industrial forces in the United States - together with China the largest emitter of greenhouse gases on the planet - think that a task so fundamental and massive as fighting global warming and environmental pollution should mostly be left 'to the market'. Unfortunately, it's just a matter of economic reality that 'the market' will not invest in new energy technologies on a large scale until existing ways of producing energy become more expensive than producing alternative energies - which at the moment they aren't. As is the case with almost all emerging technologies, government initially lends a helping hand before the technology becomes a viable commercial proposition and the market takes over (remember how the Internet got created?). In the case of future clean energy technologies, it appears that this 'helping hand' needs to be massive and swift. It's not so much that clean/green tech wouldn't develop over time on its own. But it's against the backdrop of accelerating global warming that it becomes a top priority that requires massive public resources.