Nanotechnology promises energy security, supply

March 8, 2005
Breakthroughs in nanotechnology could provide technologies that would contribute to worldwide energy security and supply, said a science policy study from Rice University.

By OGJ editors

HOUSTON, Mar. 8 -- Breakthroughs in nanotechnology could provide technologies that would contribute to worldwide energy security and supply, said a science policy study from Rice University.

The Mar. 8 report outlines the findings of a group of 50 US scientists and others who gathered for a meeting at Rice in May 2003. The study's findings were announced as the US Congress began another round of efforts to pass national energy legislation.

The scientists advocated a nanoscience and energy research program, saying that it could provide more efficient, inexpensive, and environmentally sound technologies than are readily available.

Research could be aimed at advances in solar powers, wind, clean coal, hydrogen, fusion, new generation fission reactors, fuel cells, batteries, hydrogen production, storage and transportation, and a new electrical grid that ties all the power sources together, they said.

Nanotechnology also could help tackle challenges facing the growth of the natural gas industry, said Melanie Kenderdine, vice-president of the Gas Technology Institute, Des Plains, Ill.

Using the development of conventional and unconventional gas resources as an example, Kenderdine said the development of advanced fluids mixed with nanosized particles could improve drill speed.

She also suggested the development of nanosensors for reservoir characterization, the removal of gas impurities via nanoseparation, and producing nanocrystalline substances for drilling materials.

Nanotechnology could address problems associated with accessing stranded gas resources by developing nanoscale membranes for gas-to-liquids production and creating nonstructured materials for compressed natural gas transport, Kenderdine said.

Research funding
The International Energy Agency projects that the total investment requirement for energy supply infrastructure will top $16 trillion between 2001-30. The electric sector is expected to receive the majority of that investment.

Meanwhile, required oil and gas infrastructure investment is estimated to reach $6 trillion during that same period, the IEA added.

A new energy research program—equivalent in size and scale to the US Apollo space program—would catapult the U.S. to unquestionable world leadership in not only fundamental science capability but also in energy technology exports, the report said.

US government investment in applied energy technology research and development—including fission, fusion, fossil fuels, and renewables—declined from $6 billion in fiscal 1997 to $1.3 billion in 2003.

Nobel Laureate and Rice University Professor Richard Smalley said the proposed US energy bill is a step in the right direction, as is the Hydrogen Fuel Initiative, but he noted that neither is bold enough to solve the worldwide energy problem.

Scientific inquiry in the energy arena currently is scattered and unfocused, with various groups working apart to gain research dollars for uncoordinated pursuits that lack a clear direction to a better energy future, Smalley said.

Calling for "a vast effort capable of providing a new nontraditional source of energy," which is at least twice the size of all worldwide energy currently being consumed, Smalley said that this source must not rely on oil and gas as its initial component.

"It must be clean, and, most importantly, it must be cheap, so it can provide the basis for sustained economic prosperity for 10 billion people," Smalley said.

The advancement of nanotechnology can be an integral component to solving energy problems, the executive report said.

The scientists identified 14 energy nanotechnology challenges:

-- Lower the costs of photovoltaic solar energy by tenfold.

-- Achieve commercial photocatalytic reduction of CO2 to methanol.

-- Create a commercial process for direct photoconversion of light and water to produce hydrogen.

-- Lower the costs of fuel cells by tenfold to a hundredfold and create new, sturdier materials.

-- Improve the efficiency and storage capacity of batteries and supercapacitors by tenfold to a hundredfold for automotive and distributed generation applications.

-- Create new lightweight materials for hydrogen storage for pressure tanks, liquid hydrogen vessels, and an easily reversible hydrogen chemisorption system.

-- Develop power cables, superconductors or quantum conductors made of new nanomaterials to rewire the electricity grid and enable long-distance, continental and even international electrical energy transport, and reducing or eliminating thermal sag failures, eddy current losses and resistive losses by replacing copper and aluminum wires.

-- Enable nanoelectronics to revolutionize computers, sensors and devices for the electricity grid and other applications.

-- Develop thermochemical processes with catalysts to generate hydrogen from water at temperatures lower than 900° C. and at commercial costs.

-- Create superstrong, lightweight materials that can be used to improve efficiency in cars, planes and in space travel; the latter, if combined with nanoelectronicsbased robotics, possibly enabling space solar structures on the moon or in space.

-- Create efficient lighting to replace incandescent and fluorescent lights.

-- Develop nanomaterials and coatings that will enable deep drilling at lower costs to tap energy resources, including geothermal heat, in deep strata.

-- Create CO2 mineralization methods that can work on a vast scale without wastestreams (possibly basalt-based).