Nanotechnology solutions are already beginning to shape industries like electronics, medical technologies, advanced materials, or pharmaceuticals. Let's take a look at the energy sector as a good example of how numerous small and not so small nanotechnology solutions can already be applied today. This overview makes clear that, so far, there has been no "holy grail" nanotechnology application – and most likely will not be for the foreseeable future. Rather, nanotechnology-based materials and devices will be integrated into existing products and materials and make them more efficient or more effective – things like better solar cells, batteries or insulation materials.
Nanotechnologies provide the potential to enhance energy efficiency across all branches of industry and to economically leverage renewable energy production through new technological solutions and optimized production technologies. Nanotechnology innovations could impact each part of the value-added chain in the energy sector:
Examples for potential applications of nanotechnology along the value-added chain in the energy sector (Source: VDI TZ GmbH). (click image to enlarge)
Nanotechnologies provide essential improvement potentials for the development of both conventional energy sources (fossil and nuclear fuels) and renewable energy sources like geothermal energy, sun, wind, water, tides or biomass. Nano-coated, wear resistant drill probes, for example, allow the optimization of lifespan and efficiency of systems for the development of oil and natural gas deposits or geothermal energy and thus the saving of costs. Further examples are high-duty nanomaterials for lighter and more rugged rotor blades of wind and tidepower plants as well as wear and corrosion protection layers for mechanically stressed components (bearings, gear boxes, etc.). Nanotechnologies will play a decisive role in particular in the intensified use of solar energy through photovoltaic systems. In case of conventional crystalline silicon solar cells, for instance, increases in efficiency are achievable by antireflection layers for higher light yield.
First and foremost, however, it will be the further development of alternative cell types, such as thin-layer solar cells (among others of silicon or other material systems like copper/indium/selenium), dye solar cells or polymer solar cells, which will predominantly profit from nanotechnologies. Polymer solar cells are said to have high potential especially regarding the supply of portable electronic devices, due to the reasonably-priced materials and production methods as well as the flexible design. Medium-term development targets are an efficiency of approx. 10% and a lifespan of several years. Here, for example, nanotechnologies could contribute to the optimization of the layer design and the morphology of organic semiconductor mixtures in component structures. In the long run, the utilization of nanostructures, like quantum dots and wires, could allow for solar cell efficiencies of over 60%.
The conversion of primary energy sources into electricity, heat and kinetic energy requires utmost efficiency. Efficiency increases, especially in fossil-fired gas and steam power plants, could help avoid considerable amounts of carbon dioxide emissions.
Higher power plant efficiencies, however, require higher operating temperatures and thus heat-resistant turbine materials. Improvements are possible, for example, through nano-scale heat and corrosion protection layers for turbine blades in power plants or aircraft engines to enhance the efficiency through increased operating temperatures or the application of lightweight construction materials (e.g. titanium aluminides).
Nano-optimized membranes can extend the scope of possibilities for separation and climate-neutral storage of carbon dioxide for power generation in coal-fired power plants, in order to render this important method of power generation environmentally friendlier in the long run. The energy yield from the conversion of chemical energy through fuel cells can be stepped up by nano-structured electrodes, catalysts and membranes, which results in economic application possibilities in automobiles, buildings and the operation of mobile electronics.
Thermoelectric energy conversion seems to be comparably promising. Nano-structured semiconductors with optimized boundary layer design contribute to increases in efficiency that could pave the way for a broad application in the utilization of waste heat, for example in automobiles, or even of human body heat for portable electronics in textiles.
Regarding the reduction of energy losses in current transmission, hope exists that the extraordinary electric conductivity of nanomaterials like carbon nanotubes can be utilized for application in electric cables and power lines. Furthermore, there are nanotechnological approaches for the optimization of superconductive materials for lossless current conduction.
In the long run, options are given for wireless energy transport, e.g. through laser, microwaves or electromagnetic resonance. Future power distribution will require power systems providing dynamic load and failure management, demand-driven energy supply with flexible price mechanisms as well as the possibility of feeding through a number of decentralized renewable energy sources.
Nanotechnologies could contribute decisively to the realization of this vision, inter alia, through nano-sensory devices and power-electronical components able to cope with the extremely complex control and monitoring of such grids.
The utilization of nanotechnologies for the enhancement of electrical energy stores like batteries and super-capacitors turns out to be downright promising. Due to the high cell voltage and the outstanding energy and power density, the lithium-ion technology is regarded as the most promising variant of electrical energy storage.
Nanotechnologies can improve capacity and safety of lithium-ion batteries decisively, as for example through new ceramic, heat-resistant and still flexible separators and high-performance electrode materials. The company Evonik pushes the commercialization of such systems for the application in hybrid and electric vehicles as well as for stationary energy storage.
In the long run, even hydrogen seems to be a promising energy store for environmentally-friendly energy supply. Apart from necessary nanostructure adjustments, the efficient storage of hydrogen is regarded as one of the critical factors of success on the way to a possible hydrogen management.
Current materials for chemical hydrogen storage do not meet the demands of the automotive industry, which requires a H2-storage capacity of up to ten weight percent.
Various nanomaterials, inter alia based on nanoporous metal-organic compounds, provide development potentials, which seem to be economically realizable at least with regard to the operation of fuel cells in portable electronic devices.
Another important field is thermal energy storage. The energy demand in buildings, for example, may be significantly reduced by using phase change materials such as latent heat stores. Interesting, from an economic point of view, are also adsorption stores based on nanoporous materials like zeolites, which could be applied as heat stores in district heating grids or in industry. The adsorption of water in zeolite allows the reversible storage and release of heat.
To achieve sustainable energy supply, and parallel to the optimized development of available energy sources, it is necessary to improve the efficiency of energy use and to avoid unnecessary energy consumption. This applies to all branches of industry and private households. Nanotechnologies provide a multitude of approaches to energy saving.
Examples are the reduction of fuel consumption in automobiles through lightweight construction materials on the basis of nanocomposites, the optimization in fuel combustion through wear-resistant, lighter engine components and nanoparticular fuel additives or even nanoparticles for optimized tires with low rolling resistance.
Considerable energy savings are realizable through tribological layers for mechanical components in plants and machines. Building technology also provides great potentials for energy savings, which could be tapped, for example, by nanoporous thermal insulation material suitably applicable in the energetic rehabilitation of old buildings.
In general, the control of light and heat flux by nanotechnological components, as for example switchable glasses, is a promising approach to reducing energy consumption in buildings.