Nanotechnology research is forming part of the quest to prevent and reverse environmental damage. Researchers aim to use nanotechnology to provide efficient and effective filters for water and air, leading to reduced pollution. A membrane that can purify water and is also self-cleaning to avoid contamination should be available in the near to medium-term. Improved catalysts, composed of nanoparticles, are already in use in petrol and chemical processing, resulting in less waste in these processes.
Using Carbon Nanotube Fuel Cells to Store Hydrogen
Perhaps the most promising application in both the environmental and energy areas is the development of fuel cells, with many different uses. Research is being undertaken into the effectiveness of carbon nanotubes at storing hydrogen; these have the potential to power cars, amongst other things, with water as the only emission, although this is some way from commercialisation.
Photovoltaics are another focus of nanotechnology development, with the ultimate aim being highly efficient, cheap, lightweight, possibly flexible, solar cells made from plastics. A breakthrough in this field is predicted to occur by 2020.
Biomimicry is one key element in this research, as scientists attempt to copy plants’ photosynthesis mechanism. The conversion of sunlight to hydrogen would bring together photovoltaics and biomimicry, and should be possible in the medium-term. Taken together, improvements in sources of renewable energy, with the development of storage of gaseous hydrogen and the improvement of fuel cells, could lead to a viable ‘hydrogen economy’ in which the energy needs of society were no longer reliant on fossil fuels.
Primary author: Professor Stephen Wood, Professor Richard Jones and Alison Geldart.
Source: ESRC The Social and Economic Challenges of Nanotechnology report, July 2003.
For more information on this source please visit Economic and Social Research Council.