Leverage nanotechnology to speed up the energy transition

(Nanowerk Spotlight) On Monday, the 20th UN Climate Change Conference (Lima COP20/CMP10) kicked off in Lima with calls to action. To step up awareness building at the anniversary conference, COP20 also drives home the risk of climate change this year with a series of fictitious weather report videos for 2050. For December 21, 2050, access to Machu Picchu is forecasted to close due to extreme rains. The nation’s capital Lima will be entering a summer that is way too hot; drought and flooding are wreaking havoc elsewhere.
Yet, calls for action are one thing, real progress another. Similar to COP conferences in previous years, drawing attention to the possible implications of extreme weather and extracting sometimes half-hearted commitments from politicians do not automatically answer the question what we can really do about this, and who will drive fresh solutions? Science—including nanotechnology—is an important part of the answer, and we need human ingenuity to step forward.
Rendering the global economy circular and powered mainly by renewable energy is the best long-run bet to sustain a projected population of nine billion people or more. To achieve this, we need to bring the advances in fields such as materials sciences and nanotechnology, information technology, engineering, and other natural sciences to bear on the problem much faster. This comes down to being ambitious and shortening the innovation cycle.
As 36 billion metric tons of CO2 emissions from fossil fuels continue to pile up every year and over one billion people have no access whatsoever to electricity, the logical conclusion is this: for renewable energy to truly compete, it will have to become fully price competitive and substitutable with fossil fuels much faster. In other words, if renewables can turn out electricity at two cents a kilowatt hour, solar panels can capture energy at night, and storage solutions can compete with gasoline in terms of energy density and ability to release energy, fast tracking the energy transition becomes possible.
We can expect nanotechnology to play a key role in this – and will need to work hard to address the resulting new occupational and safety risks. Just consider the potential of nanomaterials to improve the performance and durability of any component used in wind or solar power generation. The prospects in photovoltaics are equally exciting. Even where traditional crystalline silicon solar cells are deployed, nanomaterials make it possible to raise light yield. They can be expected to play a major role in both energy conversion and storage.
In electrical storage such as batteries, nanomaterials can dramatically improve the performance of electrode and anode, and offer both higher energy density and higher power capability. This is to say nothing of nanomaterials’ potential as catalysts in fuel cells and hydrogenation.
Dye sensitized solar cells with a nanomaterial surface as well as graphene and carbon nanotubes in quantum dot solar cells all hold great potential for higher power conversion efficiency. Using rectifying antennas (or ‘rectennas’), it is already possible to convert electromagnetic radiation to electricity, with reported conversion efficiencies of over 90 percent in the microwave range. In principle, physics predicts that it could be possible to also reach these efficiencies in the infrared and optical ranges, i.e., converting sunlight to electricity. Just think about the energy cost and availability implications of high-efficiency solar energy harvesting, leveraging a wide spectrum during the day, and possibly even conducting infrared harvesting at night.
Science opens up a world of new possibilities. Human ingenuity is impressive. But a key roadblock standing in the translation of a research idea and resulting empirical evidence into a product co-shaping a viable energy path forward is our current innovation cycle. It is simply too long. The very emergence of solar photovoltaics illustrates this: from Becquerel’s discovery of the photovoltaic effect in 1839 to Bell Lab unveiling the first usable silicon solar cell in 1954, with a six-percent efficiency, it took more than one hundred years. The R&D process has improved since, with governments funding basic research as well as incubation and acceleration to come up with products. But we still need to deliver much faster. Time is unfortunately not on our side anymore.
55 years ago, in December 1959, Nobel Laureate Richard Feynman shared his “intention to offer a prize of $1,000 to the first guy who can take the information on the page of a book and put it on an area 1/25,000 smaller in linear scale in such manner that it can be read by an electron microscope.” Nanotechnology—or the “problem of manipulating and controlling things on a small scale”, as Feynman called it then, because the term nanotechnology itself came into being only in 1974—has made miniaturization a viable solution since.
But what the politicians and stakeholders at COP20 now need are the breakthrough solutions that enable them to make good on their promises. It is time to apply Feynman’s original idea to the most pressing issue of our time: transitioning to a fully renewable economy. Nanotechnology could make an important contribution. But this can only happen if breakthroughs in science reach full-scale impact much faster.
To accelerate the process and help to push the boundaries of usable energy solutions, we have created the Exergeia Project. We back potentially groundbreaking inventions and innovations in all fields of alternative energy, including unconventional approaches—including energy efficiency, generation, storage, transmission, and distribution. If you work on something that leverages science to get to what will be the next steam engine powering the 100 percent renewable energy economy or storing the energy it produces, it is time to step forward. After all, wouldn’t it be nice if we can still visit Machu Picchu in 2050?
By Maximilian Martin, Ph.D. He is the founder and global managing director of Impact Economy, an impact investment and strategy firm based in Lausanne, Switzerland, and leads the Exergeia Project.

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