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Posted: Apr 30, 2008

Why don't we have a nanotechnology Apollo Program for clean energy?

(Nanowerk Spotlight) 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, itís 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.
A government's energy policy makes all the difference - not the market
Of course there are some government-initiated efforts in the U.S. like the FreedomCAR (how is that going, by the way?), or the Department of Energyís (DOE) announcement last year to select 13 industry-led solar technology development projects for up to $168 million in public funding.
The most promising effort appears to be the DOE's Energy Frontier Research Centers (EFRC) initiative, a comprehensive effort to accelerate the rate of scientific breakthroughs needed to create advanced energy technologies for the 21st century. Unfortunately, the program has been set up as a typical government program – a timid effort, ridiculously underfunded (given the challenge), glacially slow (commissions and committees have kept themselves busy since the beginning of the decade "establishing the energy research directions"), and controlled by a bureaucratic federal apparatus.
Rather than a massive, Apollo Program type effort that would be justified by the scope of the challenge, the EFRC initiative gets a paltry $100 million for a five-year effort starting only in 2009. To put this amount in perspective, $100 million is what the U.S. is spending for 6.5 hours of the Iraq war. Or consider this chart:
Change in Petroleum Consumption for G7 Countries 1980-2007
Change in Petroleum Consumption for G7 Countries 1980-2007
Change in petroleum consumption for G7 countries on the basis of million barrels per day (G8 couldn't be compiled because data for Russia is only available from 1992, after breakup of the Soviet Union); All of Europe also shown in comparison. Data source: U.S. Department of Energy, Energy Information Administration. Compilation and chart: Nanowerk)
Due to a deliberate energy policy away from oil, petroleum consumption actually fell from 1980 to 2007 in the largest EU countries (with the exception of the UK). This was due to an increase in renewable energy sources (for example, in 2007, renewable energy already accounted for over 14% percent of total gross electricity consumption in Germany) and in efficiency gains. For instance, gasoline in most European countries costs twice as much as in the U.S., even today with average prices in the US approaching $4 per gallon – the difference is caused by massively higher taxes on petrol – which led to cars in Europe having much better gas mileage than in America. Given the current hysterical reaction in the U.S. to higher gas prices, with pandering politicians talking of even reducing the tax on gas or introducing a "summer tax holiday", a responsible energy policy in this country seems to be more remote than ever.
While rising oil prices will lead to reduced consumption eventually, the problem is that we might not have the time from an ecological perspective to sit this one out. Without going into the ideological discussion as to whether global warming is man-made or not – shouldn't we be doing anything humanly possible anyway to reduce the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere to reduce the catastrophic effects of a warming planet
There are basically four ideological camps that compete with each other in proposing the best solutions: At one end of the extreme are environmental groups that argue that we need stringent environmental laws and heavily tax all greenhouse gas emissions. At the other end are free-market proponents who believe that an unregulated capitalist system will self-correct and that industry will develop the necessary technologies and become 'green' over time because itís in their own interest. In between there is a smorgasbord of – mostly uncoordinated – activities by state and local governments, grassroots campaigns, investors and entrepreneurs to provide small, local and partial solutions. And finally, there is a broad but loose coalition of scientists, interest groups and governments who propose that the best way out of our climate problems is massive international agreements (such as the Kyoto protocol) where governments voluntarily agree (or not, as is the case with the U.S. and China) to reduce harmful gas emissions by certain amounts within specified timeframes.
While European countries have shown that a mix of all of the above works in moving their societies away from oil and towards renewable and clean energy sources, it is far from being enough to slow down the carbon dioxide increase in the atmosphere.
Realizing that existing solutions are not good enough, there is a small but growing number of voices that, in contrast to heavy regulations or the hope for self-regulating markets, propose a third way out of the energy crisis. Akin to the Apollo Program that landed a man on the moon, they put forward the idea of a massive, publicly-funded and technology-led project that will result in breakthrough technological solutions that can be implemented on a large scale and in a relatively short time. (For some thought-provoking ideas on a technology-driven way out of the climate and energy crisis read Break Through: From the Death of Environmentalism to the Politics of Possibility)
Nanotechnology's major role in tomorrow's clean energy
In a 2005 report, the Basic Energy Sciences Advisory Committee (BESAC) within the DOE published a report which examined the roadblocks to progress, and the opportunities for truly transformational new understanding of future energy systems ("Directing Matter and Energy: Five Challenges for Science and the Imagination"). The report concludes that a new era of energy science poses five challenges:
  • How do we control materials processes at the level of electrons?
  • How do we design and perfect atom- and energy-efficient syntheses of revolutionary new forms of matter with tailored properties?
  • How do remarkable properties of matter emerge from the complex correlations of atomic or electronic constituents and how can we control these properties?
  • How can we master energy and information on the nanoscale to create new technologies with capabilities rivaling those of living things?
  • How do we characterize and control matter away – especially very far away – from equilibrium?
  • Based on a series of 10 "Basic Research Needs" workshops, the DOE hopes that research proposals from the scientific community will lead to the establishment of EFRCs that will address all the issues that have been raised in the workshops.
    To give a brief overview of nanotechnology's key role in our future energy supply, it makes sense to broadly group potential applications into three main areas (energy production; energy transport and storage; energy consumption). This compilation provides an – by no means complete – overview from the EFRC brochure and makes snapshot references to some exemplary research:
    Nanotechnology in energy production
    Direct conversion of solar energy to electricity and chemical fuels will benefit from powerful new methods of nanoscale fabrication, characterization, and simulation – using physical, chemical and biological tools that were not available as few as five years ago – to create new opportunities for understanding and manipulating the molecular and electronic pathways of solar energy conversion. A lot of research in this area today is on carbon nanotubes (Carbon nanotubes can double the efficiency of photoelectrochemical solar cells) and quantum dots (Catching a rainbow - quantum dot nanotechnology brightens the prospects for solar energy).
    Understanding of how biological feedstocks are converted into portable fuels – biological systems are the proof-of-concept for what can be physically achieved by nanotechnology (Nanotechnology's role in next generation biofuel production). The way in which energy, entropy, and information are manipulated within the nanosystems of life provide lessons on how to develop similarly sophisticated energy technologies. This entails research in light harvesting, exciton transfer, charge separation, transfer of reductant to carbon dioxide as well as carbon fixation, storage and conversion.
    Catalysis – the essential technology for accelerating and directing chemical transformation – is key to realizing environmentally friendly, efficient and economical processes for the conversion of fossil and renewable or alternative energy feedstocks. The grand challenge at the core of all of these areas is to achieve detailed mechanistic understanding of catalytic dynamics for complex heavy molecular mixtures, bio-derived species, and solid nanostructures and interfaces (Nanotechnology optimizes catalyst systems).
    In a smaller way, nanotechnology materials and processes will generally benefit most areas of renewable energy production. For instance, the use of nanocomposite materials that provide lighter and substantially stronger turbine blades may be the most promising short-term contribution nanotechnology will make in next generation wind turbines. Improving turbine performance and reliability will allow for longer lifetime, less fatigue failure, and thus lower costs of energy generation.
    Nanotechnology in energy transport and storage
    Fundamental performance limitations of energy storage systems are rooted in the constituent materials making up an electrical energy storage device (batteries and fuel cells), and novel approaches are needed to develop multifunctional energy storage materials that offer new self-healing, self-regulating, failure-tolerant, impurity-sequestering, and sustainable characteristics (A new promising class of non-precious metal catalysts for fuel cells). The discovery of novel nanoscale materials with architectures tailored for specific performance offer particularly exciting possibilities for the development of revolutionary architectures that simultaneously optimize ion and electron transport and capacity (Converting conventional nanotubes into superior carbon for batteries).
    As an energy carrier, electricity so far has no rival with regard to its environmental cleanliness, flexibility in interfacing with multiple production sources and end uses, and efficiency of delivery. However, the challenge facing the electricity grid will soon grow to crisis proportions. Incremental advances in existing grid technology are not capable of solving the bottlenecks to power transmission. Revolutionary new power transmission and control solutions based on superconductors can solve this crisis. Advancing the state-of-the-art in superconductivity presents a formidable research challenge. One of the primary scientific opportunities here is rooted in nanoscale phenomena as superconductivity’s two composite building blocks have dimensions ranging from a tenth of a nanometer to a hundred nanometers. Unraveling superconductivity’s mechanism with the promise of nanoscale fabrication, characterization, and simulation will provide a pathway for the rational design of and production of functional superconducting materials required for next-generation grid technology (Where's the glue? Scientists find a surprise when they look for what binds in superconductivity).
    Safe, efficient and compact hydrogen storage is a major challenge in order to realize hydrogen powered transport. Nanotechnology plays an important role here. Nanomaterials have diverse tunable physical properties as a function of their size and shape due to strong quantum confinement effects and large surface to volume ratios. These properties are useful for designing hydrogen storage materials. For instance, researchers are now investigating nanostructured polymeric materials as hydrogen storage adsorbents. Due to their large surface areas with relatively small mass, single-walled carbon nanotubes have been considered very promising potential materials for high capacity hydrogen storage. However, there is some skepticism on carbon nanotube hydrogen storage due to early mistakes in experimental publications and a rational basis for high capacity hydrogen storage materials is now being developed (New carbon nanotube hydrogen storage results surpass Freedom Car requirements).
    Nanotechnology in energy consumption
    Transforming energy utilization and transmission – at the heart of nanoscale behavior, one often finds emergent phenomena, in which a complex outcome emerges from the correlated interactions of many simple constituents. By understanding the fundamental rules of correlations and emergence and then by learning how to control them, we could produce, for example, an entirely new generation of energy utilization and transmission processes, such as in phase change materials for thermal energy conversion, strong light-matter interaction and collective charge behavior for light emission nearing theoretical efficiency, and radically different combustion chemistry of alternative fuels. Understanding the emergent behavior of materials and chemical reactivity at the nanoscale offers remarkable opportunities in a broad arena of applications including solid-state lighting, electrical generators, clean and efficient combustion of 21st century transportation fuels, catalytic processes for efficient production and utilization of chemical fuels, and superconductivity for resistance-less electricity transmission.
    In 2001, twenty-two percent of electricity used in the U.S., equivalent to eight percent of the nationís total energy, was used for artificial light. Solid state lighting (SSL) modalities present an opportunity to achieve tremendous advances in energy efficiency (Nanocomposite solid-state lighting). By discovering and controlling the materials and nanostructure properties that mediate the competing conversion of electrons to light and heat, nanotechnology will address the challenge of converting every injected electron into useful photons. The anticipated results are ultra-high-efficiency light-emitting materials and nanostructures, and a deep scientific understanding of how light interacts with matter, with broad impact on science and technology areas beyond SSL.
    There are other, more indirect – and only incremental – impacts that nanotechnology could have on energy usage. For instance, by using high-performance nanocomposite materials, cars and airplanes could be made much lighter, thereby improving fuel efficiencies. But the major improvement in the transportation sector will come once nanotechnology-enabled fuel cells have become commercially viable alternatives to the internal combustion engine.
    The solution: Change the shotgun approach to nanotechnology funding
    Nanotechnologies will have a major role to play in almost all future clean energy applications and that's why the scope – but not the scale – of the DOE's Energy Frontier Research Centers initiative seems such a good starting point. Add three zeroes to the current funding and you have the beginning of a promising energy initiative.
    There is no doubt that nanotechnologies could provide the solutions to our energy problems, not today, and not tomorrow, but with a massive, coordinated and international effort a 10-20 year timeframe seems not unrealistic. Today's various national nanotechnology programs fund their vast hodgepodge of research initiatives more from a viewpoint of basic research (or, in the case of the U.S., military wish lists) than with a focus on commercial implementation – in the process scattering funding resources by trying to cover each and every potential application.
    Instead, the leading dozen or so nanotechnology nations should get together and commit to a concerted and massively funded 10-year program to develop commercially viable, clean energy solutions based on nanotechnology. Rather than have bureaucratic government departments oversee the effort there should be a new agency – much like the can-do organization that NASA was in the 1960s – to drive this effort forward in close cooperation with academia and industry.
    Not only would this provide a way out of the energy and climate crisis, it would finally provide the much-needed, large-scale commercialization of nanotechnologies that will lead to entirely new industries. The funding can be found, the technology can be developed, all it takes is political will...
    By . Michael is author of two books by the Royal Society of Chemistry: Nano-Society: Pushing the Boundaries of Technology (RSC Nanoscience & Nanotechnology) and Nanotechnology: The Future is Tiny. Copyright © Nanowerk

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