Editorial Feature

Where does Nanotechnology fit in Electrification?

Nanotechnology is the design, production, and application of structures at the nanoscale, studying the phenomena and manipulation of materials at atomic, molecular, and macromolecular scales. Its role in the future of electrification is becoming increasingly clear.

Image Credit: FotoIdee/Shutterstock.com

Nanotechnology is used in science and engineering to design and improve structures in a variety of industrial fields. These include pharmaceuticals, food and energy, electronics, coatings, cosmetics, optical and magnetic systems. 

Paris Climate Agreement to COP26 Glasgow Summit:  Failures and Agreements

The Paris Climate Agreement 2015 (COP21) was seen as a landmark agreement, whereby 196 parties signed a legal framework to tackle climate change. The outcome was a pathway aimed at achieving carbon net-zero by 2050 to limit global warming to 1.2 degrees celsius, pre-industrial levels.

Following on from Paris, pledges made at the COP26 Summit in Glasgow were disappointing to many delegates due to the fact China and India forced a last-minute change to a pact, which amended a phase-out of coal and fossil fuel subsidies, to a phase-down of coal instead.

However, there was an agreement for the scaling up of green power.  

The private sector showed strong commitment to align US 130 trillion dollars with the goals set out in the Paris Climate Agreement, equating to 40 percent of total global financial assets.

The US and China also agreed on a joint declaration to tackle methane emissions and transition to clean energy, including policies for decarbonization and electrification of end-user sectors.   

Why Nanotechnology is Needed for Electrification of End-Use Sectors

End-user sectors refer to the energy directly used by consumers, which equates to the primary energy used for transportation, industrial, commercial and residential.  End-use primary energy refers to electricity, gasoline, and natural gas.

Nanotechnology has the potential to help revolutionize industries, especially when it comes to tackling environmental issues such as climate change.

With pressure on World leaders and global sectors to act, and new electrification agreements being formulated, the race is on to electrify as much as possible, from trains and cars to heating homes.

According to the Electrifying US Industry Report (2021, globalefficiencyintel.org), industry alone accounts for two-thirds of all energy demand.  

The report calls upon industry to partner with academia, think tanks, and science labs, to scale up electrification processes.

To do this, it is beneficial to scale down, or to be more precise, nanoscale down in order to make more efficient, durable materials and equipment.  

Electronics, insulation, coatings, nanotubes, high-efficiency light bulbs, and transformers, to name but a few, have all been enhanced and improved using nanotechnology.

Nanotechnology Applications for Renewable Energy & Industry Developments

Nanotechnology can provide cleaner, more economical, more efficient, and reliable ways to capture renewable energy sources. It also has the potential to revitalize the socio-economic development of developing countries to assist in sustainable energy transition and their decarbonized economies.   

Carbon nanotubes (CNT) are now replacing conventional graphite electrodes in batteries. They have an exceptionally high surface area, strong electrical conductivity, and linear geometry, making them highly accessible to battery electrolytes, resulting in higher efficiency from the resulting increased electrical output.

Nanostructures such as carbon nanotubes, fullerenes, and quantum dots are used to make solar cells lighter, more efficient, and more cost-effective. The amount of solar radiation captured increases as the surface area to volume ratio of nanoparticles increases conducting surface areas.

Solar energy absorption of conventional PV cells is generally quite poor, coupled with a high cost of manufacturing, making the amount converted into electrical energy less than 40 percent, whereas nanotechnology can create altered materials with higher absorption rates. 

Nano batteries can recharge 60 times faster than conventional batteries, and some can also operate over a greater range of temperatures. Some have even been developed to give them a limitless shelf life.

Millions of nanotubes have been used in capacitors to increase electrode surface area, thereby extending the amount of energy stored since the storage area of capacitors is proportional to the surface area of the electrode. 

Carbon nanotubes are also used to make wind turbines more efficient by making lighter and more durable blades, so their length can be increased to increase electricity production and the lifespan of the blade itself.

Fluid used in geothermal energy production enables energy-efficient production much closer to the surface by using a fluid with heat-retaining nanoparticles.

Using nanotechnology to convert waste heat into electricity | Charles Stafford | TEDxTucsonSalon

Video Credit: TEDx Talks/YouTube.com

Developing countries are beginning to run power plants using steam created by sunlight concentrated on nanoparticles.   

Thermocells are sheets of nanotubes that create electricity by cell temperature differentials.  They can be wrapped around the hot exhaust pipes of cars to create electricity rather than heat waste.

State-of-the-art electrical transformers, key elements in the electricity network, are being developed by the electrical industry, using nanotechnology to enhance reliability and performance. In particular, industry focus is on insulating materials, coatings, dielectric fluids, insulation, and monitoring equipment. 

Demand for electric vehicles (EVs) means nanostructure and nanomaterial development may revolutionize production and material recycling, including vehicle lifetime.

Trade-offs, Investment and Electrifying a Decarbonized Future

An article published in Nature discusses the environmental trade-offs involved between technical improvements and the environmental impact of mining for materials such as lithium and copper, which are used to produce lithium-ion batteries, and proton exchange membrane hydrogen fuel cells.

It identifies gaps in nanomaterial research for guiding future nanomaterial developments and suggests a life-cycle assessment approach offers a way to quantify environmental impacts.

In 2003, due to budget cuts and reduced funding, NASA scaled-down nanotechnology research, having published over 350 papers on the subject.

This resulted in R&D expenditure falling from US 47 million dollars to US 20 million dollars between 2004 and 2007.   

In 2010, NASA drafted a Nanotechnology Roadmap, as part of its Space Technology Roadmap.

Since 2012, NASA reported an increase in nanotechnology R&D, which has a knock-on effect for US space missions and all associated engineering and technology industries for commercial and domestic use.

On his first day in office, President Biden re-joined the Paris Climate Agreement in 2021. Consequently, the World is waiting to see if NASA’s funding will increase again, and with it a renewed commitment to nanotechnology research in line with the decarbonization and electrification of end-user commitments, the US made at COP26. 

Meanwhile, China still leads nanoscience research, producing 40 percent of the World’s research papers in 2019, followed by the US, India, and Iran.

Perhaps there is some irony in the World’s biggest contributors to climate change pollution, now leading the way in nanoscience research and development, that may just hold the key for unlocking nanoscale solutions to help combat it.

Continue reading:Nano-Intermetallic Catalyst Enables Step Towards CO2 Circular Economy.

References and Further Reading 

Deshpande, V. and Talele, M., (2017) Nanotechnology enabled hybrid power system suitable for batteries in hybrid electric vehicle. 2017 Third International Conference on Advances in Electrical, Electronics, Information, Communication and Bio-Informatics (AEEICB),. Available at: https://ieeexplore.ieee.org/abstract/document/7972378

Iberdrola. (2021) Nanotechnology Applications, examples and advantages - Iberdrola. [online] Available at: https://www.iberdrola.com/innovation/nanotechnology-applications

Yuan, L., (2021) New nanocomposite improves solar evaporation for water purification. [online] Phys.org. Available at: https://phys.org/news/2021-11-nanocomposite-solar-evaporation-purification.html

Contreras, J., Rodriguez, E. and Taha-Tijerina, J., (2017) Nanotechnology applications for electrical transformers—A review. Electric Power Systems Research, 143, pp.573-584. Available at: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0378779616304655

United Nations (2021) PARIS AGREEMENT. [PDF] Paris. Available at: https://unfccc.int/sites/default/files/english_paris_agreement.pdf

UN News. (2021) COP26 closes with ‘compromise’ deal on climate, but it’s not enough, says UN chief. [online] Available at: https://news.un.org/en/story/2021/11/1105792

UN News. (2021) UN chief welcomes China-US pledge to cooperate on climate action. [online] Available at: https://news.un.org/en/story/2021/11/1105512

(2021) ELECTRIFICATION WITH RENEWABLES. [ebook] International Renewable Energy Agency. Available at: https://www.irena.org/-/media/Files/IRENA/Agency/Publication/2019/Jan/IRENA_RE-Electrification_SGCC_2019_preview.pdf

Global Efficiency Intelligence. (2021) Electrifying U.S. Industry — Global Efficiency Intelligence. [online] Available at: https://www.globalefficiencyintel.com/electrifying-us-industry

Echiegu, E., (2016) Nanotechnology as a Tool for Enhanced Renewable Energy Application in Developing Countries. Journal of Fundamentals of Renewable Energy and Applications, 06(06). Available at: https://www.longdom.org/open-access/nanotechnology-as-a-tool-for-enhanced-renewable-energy-application-in-developing-countries-2090-4541-1000e113.pd

Ellingsen, L., Hung, C., Majeau-Bettez, G., Singh, B., Chen, Z., Whittingham, M. and Strømman, A., (2016) Nanotechnology for environmentally sustainable electromobility. Nature Nanotechnology, 11(12), pp.1039-1051. Available at: https://www.nature.com/articles/nnano.2016.237

Nanowerk.com. (2021) NASA and nanotechnology. [online] Available at: https://www.nanowerk.com/spotlight/spotid=27065.php

Statnano.com. (2021) 2019’s 20 Leading Countries in Nanotechnology Publications | STATNANO. [online] Available at: https://statnano.com/news/67470/2019%E2%80%99s-20-Leading-Countries-in-Nanotechnology-Publications

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Georgie Lyng

Written by

Georgie Lyng

Georgie Lyng is a freelance writer, with a strong interest in environmental issues, a focus on sustainable technologies, climate change science, improving biodiversity, and protection of natural ecosystems. Georgie completed an Open University BSc Environment Studies degree in 2016, enjoys researching environment issues, and writing about the latest scientific developments in the industry and sustainable solutions to help protect the environment.

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