Nano-Technology: Solution to Energy Crisis
What is Nanotechnology?
Nanotechnology enables control of matter at the nanometer scale. We measure the length of an elephant in meters; the length of a human being is measured in centimeters, the size of an ant in millimeters and that of a bacterium in micrometers. If we go down still further to the scale of the size of an atom or of a molecule, we use the measurement nanometer. One nanometer is one-billionth of a meter, roughly the width of three or four atoms. An average human hair is about 25,000 nanometers wide.
By taking the advantage of quantum-level properties, nanotechnology allows for unprecedented control of the material world, at the nanoscale, providing the means by which systems and materials can be built with exacting specifications and characteristics. Materials reduced to the nanoscale can suddenly show very different properties compared to what they exhibit on a macroscale, enabling unique applications.
For instance, opaque substances like copper become transparent, inert materials like platinum become catalysts, stable materials like aluminum turn combustible, solids like gold turn into liquid in room temperature and lose conductivity, and insulators such as silicon become conductors. Much of the fascination with nanotechnology stems from these unique quantum and surface phenomena that matter exhibits at the nanoscale.
Building Blocks of Nanotechnology
Particles that show the wonders at the nanoscale are known as nanoparticles. The transition from microparticles to nanoparticles can lead to a number of changes in physical properties. Two of the major factors in this are the increase in the ratio of surface area to volume, and the size of the particle moving into the realm where quantum effects predominate.
Once particles become small enough they start to exhibit quantum mechanical behavior. The increase in the surface area to volume ratio, which happens as the particles get smaller, leads to an increasing dominance of the behavior of atoms on the surface of a particle over the behavior of those in the interior of the particle. This affects both properties of the particle in isolation as well as in its interaction with other materials.
Energy Crisis and Nanotechnology
With the demand for energy growing by the day and resources exhausting fast, governments round the world are faced with the challenge of finding solutions to the significant problem related to increasing energy demand without releasing more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.
Nanotechnology is being used to develop cleaner, more economical and more efficient sources of energy. Employing nanotechnology, more efficient batteries and fuel cells are being developed. Fuel cell batteries made up of nanometer components or nanoparticles can power automobiles and other equipments, such as computers.
The development of nanotech to power vehicles and other machines is in part of a response to the growing scarcity of fossil fuels. Fossil fuels, when compared to nano-energy, do not offer energy that is as clean, plentiful and economical. The efficiency of the traditional vehicle fuels, gasoline and diesel, can also be increased with the help of nanotechnology. A catalyst made up of nanoparticles is more effective. Also, nano-energy, when it is in the form of enhanced diesel and gasoline fuels, can be produced from previously unusable raw materials and that too more economically.
Ever science their invention in the late 1870’s, traditional electric light bulbs have used metal filaments to emit light. The metal filaments generate a lot of heat, so it is a drain of electricity. White Light-Emitting Diodes (LED) are forms of nano-energy that are used to make the production of artificial lights more energy efficient. Semi-conducting organic layers, separated by an area roughly equivalent to 100 nanometers, allow for a minimal amount of required energy for giving off light.
Researcher Michael Demkowicz at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology is developing a nano-composite that can resist damage from radiation and could be used instead of stainless steel to line a nuclear reactor. The material would extend the life of the reactor and allow it to operate more efficiently because it could burn a higher percentage of nuclear fuel, also resulting in less radioactive waste. Other composites, such as fiberglass and carbon fiber, with nano-engineering, can be made to change shape under certain conditions, producing more efficient turbine blades in wind and tidal generators.
Nano-energy also offers alternatives for electrical power generation, especially as far as the heating and air-conditioning of homes and other buildings are concerned. The harnessing of unlimited solar energy is the most obvious example. This nano-energy source has the advantage of eliminating dangerous emissions like carbon dioxide, which escapes into the atmosphere when traditional heating energy like those created from coal and natural gas are used. The use of solar nano-energy is an attempt to cut energy costs, not just in terms of economics, but also in terms of human and animal health problems.
Solar cells can be made more energy efficient than conventional cells by nano-engineering. These nano-cells are made by the combination of materials, in which each layer captures energy from a particular color in the spectrum of sunlight. These multi-junction solar cells already have an efficiency of over 40%, much higher than 20% that the conventional panels can produce, but they are too expensive at present to be competitive!
Nano solar cells embedded in flexible plastics will be able to adjust to the shape and terrain of the rooftops. Thus, it will be possible to produce energy on every rooftop. With nanotech, tiny solar cells can also be printed onto flexible, very thin light-retaining materials, bypassing the cost of silicon production.
Nano-cells made up of materials, several hundred times smaller than hair, will have more light capturing capabilities. Each nano solar cell can be an energy collector and spread with the plastic sheets to cover large surface areas than conventional photovoltaic cells. Nano-tubes can help in absorption of solar energy and its conversion to electrical energy due to their structure.
By integrating applications of nano-science, solar-farms may be created consisting of plastic materials with solar cells that can be rolled across the deserts to generate huge energy. Nanotech enables the production of solar cell glass that will not only generate energy but also act as a window in future houses and commercial buildings. While it will capture solar energy to power the building, at the same time it will also reduce overheating of the building thereby reducing the need to cooling.
Cheap nanofabrication will lead to such things as materials for passive energy management, such as electro-chromic or photo-chromic smart windows; efficient energy conversion devices such as non-thermal illumination sources (for example, White LEDs); electro-synthesis for fuel manufacture and electricity storage, and better electricity storage devices such as batteries and high performance ultra-capacitors.