Concerns with climate change have lead many to look to nanotechnology as a science with the potential to deliver new, sustainable and environmentally friendly methods of providing energy solutions.
These methods have been recently outlined by Cientifica and include:
• fuel cells
• thin film solar cells
• fuel borne catalysts
• nanocomposites that can reduce fuel consumption
Electricity powered vehicles can run more efficiently than those powered by internal combustion engines and the energy source for these vehicles currently points to fuel cells. Fuel cells use hydrogen based chemical energy and convert it to electricity.
The fuel cells themselves are a mature technology, ready to be taken to the marketplace, but the associated infrastructure needs to be developed. A refuelling network needs development and the manufacture of the hydrogen based fuels should be produced using a carbon neutral method such as using solar electricity.
Fuel cells could also be used to provide electricity for buildings and miniature fuel cells could be used in laptop computers and mobile phones.
Thin Film Solar Cells
Solar cells are currently made in an expensive, high purity process. Thin film solar cells generate electricity in a completely different manner, use a completely different manufacturing method and are based on cheap, abundant and common materials. These cells are not silicon based but use extremely thin layers of semiconducting plastic to absorb light and generate electricity. These thin semiconducting layers can be printed onto virtually any surface in a very low cost manner.
Aerogels are very low density solid-state solids created by producing a gel and replacing the liquid part of the gel with air. The result is a material with only about twice the density of air. Mostly made from silica based materials they can be used as excellent thermal insulators for building materials or for insulating liquefied fuels. Aerogels are transparent and can also replace window glass to make buildings more energy efficient.
Fuel Borne Catalysts
Previously held by the realm of snake oil salesmen, fuel borne catalysts are substances added to fuels to enhance combustion. Unlike the majority of additives sold in years gone by, these catalysts work to decrease emissions, promote ignition and reduce potentially damaging effects like engine knocking. Typically these fuel borne catalysts are nanoparticles like cerium oxide, used to increase efficiency and decrease soot from diesel engines.
Supercapacitors using nanomaterials can store large amounts of electricity for short periods of time. They can increase the energy density in batteries particularly in applications with frequent charge/discharge cycles. As an example supercapacitors could be used in public transport to store some of the energy lost in braking and then apply it to accelerating the vehicle.
Nanocomposite materials incorporate nanoparticles of various materials into a matrix of a conventional material to produce a new material with tailored but extraordinary properties. These materials can be ultra light yet extremely strong and used to produce items like lighter vehicles boasting corresponding fuel savings or highly efficient wind turbines.