Over the past few decades, the fields of science and engineering have been seeking to develop new and improved types of energy technologies that have the capability of improving life all over the world. In order to make the next leap forward from the current generation of technology, scientists and engineers have been developing energy applications of nanotechnology. Nanotechnology, a new field in science, is any technology that contains components smaller than 100 nanometers. For scale, a single virus particle is about 100 nanometers in width.
An important subfield of nanotechnology related to energy is nanofabrication. Nanofabrication is the process of designing and creating devices on the nanoscale. Creating devices smaller than 100 nanometers opens many doors for the development of new ways to capture, store, and transfer energy. The inherent level of control that nanofabrication could give scientists and engineers would be critical in providing the capability of solving many of the problems that the world is facing today related to the current generation of energy technologies.
People in the fields of science and engineering have already begun developing ways of utilizing nanotechnology for the development of consumer products. Benefits already observed from the design of these products are an increased efficiency of lighting and heating, increased electrical storage capacity, and a decrease in the amount of pollution from the use of energy. Benefits such as these make the investment of capital in the research and development of nanotechnology a top priority.
Recently, previously established and entirely new companies such as BetaBatt, Inc. and Oxane Materials are focusing on nanomaterials as a way to develop and improve upon older methods for the capture, transfer, and storage of energy for the development of consumer products.
ConsERV, a product developed by the Dais Analytic Corporation, uses nanoscale polymer membranes to increase the efficiency of heating and cooling systems and has already proven to be a lucrative design. The polymer membrane was specifically configured for this application by selectively engineering the size of the pores in the membrane to prevent air from passing, while allowing moisture to pass through the membrane. ConsERV's value is demonstrated in the form of an energy recovery a device which pretreats the incoming fresh air to a building using the energy found in the exhaust air steam using no moving parts to lower the energy and carbon footprint of existing forms of heating and cooling equipment Polymer membranes can be designed to selectively allow particles of one size and shape to pass through while preventing other. This makes for a powerful tool that can be used in all markets - consumer, commercial, industrial, and government products from biological weapons protection to industrial chemical separations. Dais's near term uses of this 'family' of selectively engineered nanotechnology materials, aside from ConsERV, include (a.) a completely new cooling cycle capable of replacing the refrigerant based cooling cycle the world has known for the past 100 plus years. This product, under development, is named NanoAir. NanoAir uses only water and this selectively engineered membrane material to cool (or heat) and dehumidify (or humidify) air. There are no fluorocarbon producing gasses used, and the energy required to cool a space drops as thermodynamics does the actual cooling. The company was awarded an Advanced Research Program Administration - Energy award in 2010, and a United States Department of Defense (DoD) grant in 2011 both designed to accelerate this newer, energy efficient technology closer to commercialization, and (b.) a novel way to clean most all contaminated forms of water called NanoClear. By using the selectivity of this hermetic, engineered composite material it can transfer only a water molecule from one face of the membrane to the other leaving behind the contaminants. It should also be noted Dais received a US Patent (Patent Number 7,990,679) in October 2011 titled "Nanoparticle Ultracapacitor". This patented item again uses the selectively engineered material to create an energy storage mechanism projected to have performance and cost advantages over existing storage technologies. The company has used this patent's concepts to create a functional energy storage prototype device named NanoCap. NanoCap is a form of ultra-capacitor potentially useful to power a broad range of applications including most forms of transportation, energy storage (especially useful as a storage media for renewable energy technologies), telecommunication infrastructure, transistor gate dielectrics, and consumer battery applications (cell phones, computers, etc.).
A New York-based company called Applied NanoWorks, Inc. has been developing a consumer product that utilizes LED technology to generate light. Light-emitting diodes or LEDs, use only about 10% of the energy that a typical incandescent or fluorescent light bulb uses and typically last much longer, which makes them a viable alternative to traditional light bulbs. While LEDs have been around for decades, this company and others like it have been developing a special variant of LED called the white LED. White LEDs consist of semi-conducting organic layers that are only about 100 nanometers in distance from each other and are placed between two electrodes, which create an anode, and a cathode. When voltage is applied to the system, light is generated when electricity passes through the two organic layers. This is called electroluminescence. The semiconductor properties of the organic layers are what allow for the minimal amount of energy necessary to generate light. In traditional light bulbs, a metal filament is used to generate light when electricity is run through the filament. Using metal generates a great deal of heat and therefore lowers efficiency.
Research for longer lasting batteries has been an ongoing process for years. Researchers have now begun to utilize nanotechnology for battery technology. mPhase Technologies in conglomeration with Rutgers University and Bell Laboratories have utilized nanomaterials to alter the wetting behavior of the surface where the liquid in the battery lies to spread the liquid droplets over a greater area on the surface and therefore have greater control over the movement of the droplets. This gives more control to the designer of the battery. This control prevents reactions in the battery by separating the electrolytic liquid from the anode and the cathode when the battery is not in use and joining them when the battery is in need of use.
Thermal applications also are a future applications of nanothechonlogy creating low cost system of heating, ventilation, and air conditioning, changing molecular structure for better management of temperature
A reduction of energy consumption can be reached by better insulation systems, by the use of more efficient lighting or combustion systems, and by use of lighter and stronger materials in the transportation sector. Currently used light bulbs only convert approximately 5% of the electrical energy into light. Nanotechnological approaches like or quantum caged atoms (QCAs) could lead to a strong reduction of energy consumption for illumination.
Today's best solar cells have layers of several different semiconductors stacked together to absorb light at different energies but they still only manage to use 40 percent of the Sun's energy. Commercially available solar cells have much lower efficiencies (15-20%). Nanostructuring has been used to improve the efficiencies of established photovoltaic tehcnologies, for example by improving current collection in amorphous silicon devices, plasmonic enhancement in dye-sensitized solar cells, and improved light trapping in crystalline silicon. Furthermore, nanotechnology could help increase the efficiency of light conversion by using nanostructures with a continuum of bandgaps, or by controlling the directivity and photon escape probability of photovoltaic devices.
The degree of efficiency of the internal combustion engine is about 30-40% at present. Nanotechnology could improve combustion by designing specific catalysts with maximized surface area. In 2005, scientists at the University of Toronto developed a spray-on nanoparticle substance that, when applied to a surface, instantly transforms it into a solar collector.
Nanomaterials deployed by swarm robotics may be helpful for decontaminating a site of a nuclear accident which poses hazards to humans because of high levels of radiation and radioactive particles. Hot nuclear compounds such as corium or melting fuel rods may be contained in "bubbles" made from nanomaterials that are designed to isolate the harmful effects of nuclear activity occurring inside of them from the outside environment that organisms inhabit.
The relatively recent shift toward using nanotechnology with respect to the capture, transfer, and storage of energy has and will continue to have many positive economic impacts on society. The control of materials that nanotechnology offers to scientists and engineers of consumer products is one of the most important aspects of nanotechnology. This allows for an improved efficiency of products across the board.
A major issue with current energy generation is the loss of efficiency from the generation of heat as a by-product of the process. A common example of this is the heat generated by the internal combustion engine. The internal combustion engine loses about 64% of the energy from gasoline as heat and an improvement of this alone could have a significant economic impact. However, improving the internal combustion engine in this respect has proven to be extremely difficult without sacrificing performance. Improving the efficiency of fuel cells through the use of nanotechnology appears to be more plausible by using molecularly tailored catalysts, polymer membranes, and improved fuel storage.
In order for a fuel cell to operate, particularly of the hydrogen variant, a noble-metal catalyst (usually platinum, which is very expensive) is needed to separate the electrons from the protons of the hydrogen atoms. However, catalysts of this type are extremely sensitive to carbon monoxide reactions. In order to combat this, alcohols or hydrocarbons compounds are used to lower the carbon monoxide concentration in the system. This adds an additional cost to the device. Using nanotechnology, catalysts can be designed through nanofabrication that are much more resistant to carbon monoxide reactions, which improves the efficiency of the process and may be designed with cheaper materials to additionally lower costs.
Fuel cells that are currently designed for transportation need rapid start-up periods for the practicality of consumer use. This process puts a lot of strain on the traditional polymer electrolyte membranes, which decreases the life of the membrane requiring frequent replacement. Using nanotechnology, engineers have the ability to create a much more durable polymer membrane, which addresses this problem. Nanoscale polymer membranes are also much more efficient in ionic conductivity. This improves the efficiency of the system and decreases the time between replacements, which lowers costs.
Another problem with contemporary fuel cells is the storage of the fuel. In the case of hydrogen fuel cells, storing the hydrogen in gaseous rather than liquid form improves the efficiency by 5%. However, the materials that we currently have available to us significantly limit fuel storage due to low stress tolerance and costs. Scientists have come up with an answer to this by using a nanoporous styrene material (which is a relatively inexpensive material) that when super-cooled to around -196oC, naturally holds on to hydrogen atoms and when heated again releases the hydrogen for use.
For decades, scientists and engineers have been attempting to make computers smaller and more efficient. A crucial component of computers are capacitors. A capacitor is a device that is made of a pair of electrodes separated by an insulator that each stores an opposite charge. A capacitor stores a charge when it is removed from the circuit that it is connected to; the charge is released when it is replaced back into the circuit. Capacitors have an advantage over batteries in that they release their charge much more quickly than a battery.
Traditional or foil capacitors are composed of thin metal conducting plates separated by an electrical insulator, which are then stacked or rolled and placed in a casing. The problem with a traditional capacitor such as this is that they limit how small an engineer can design a computer. Scientists and engineers have since turned to nanotechnology for a solution to the problem.
Using nanotechnology, researchers developed what they call "ultracapacitors." An ultracapacitor is a general term that describes a capacitor that contains nanocomponents. Ultracapacitors are being researched heavily because of their high density interior, compact size, reliability, and high capacitance. This decrease in size makes it increasingly possible to develop much smaller circuits and computers. Ultracapacitors also have the capability to supplement batteries in hybrid vehicles by providing a large amount of energy during peak acceleration and allowing the battery to supply energy over longer periods of time, such as during a constant driving speed. This could decrease the size and weight of the large batteries needed in hybrid vehicles as well as take additional stress off the battery. However, the combination of ultracapacitors and a battery is not cost effective due to the need of additional DC/DC electronics to coordinate the two.
Nanoporous carbon aerogel is one type of material that is being utilized for the design of ultracapacitors. These aerogels have a very large interior surface area and can have its properties altered by changing the pore diameter and distribution along with adding nanosized alkali metals to alter its conductivity.
Carbon nanotubes are another possible material for use in an ultracapacitor. Carbon nanotubes are created by vaporizing carbon and allowing it to condense on a surface. When the carbon condenses, it forms a nanosized tube composed of carbon atoms. This tube has a high surface area, which increases the amount of charge that can be stored. The low reliability and high cost of using carbon nanotubes for ultracapacitors is currently an issue of research.
In a study concerning ultracapacitors or supercapacitors, researchers at the Sungkyunkwan University in the Republic of Korea explored the possibility of increasing the capacitance of electrodes through the addition of fluorine atoms to the walls of carbon nanotubes. As briefly mentioned before, carbon nanotubes are an increasing form of capacitors due to their superb chemical stability, high conductivity, light mass, and their large surface area. These researchers fluorinated single-walled carbon nanotubes (SWCNTs) at high temperatures to bind fluorine atoms to the walls. The attached fluorine atoms changed the non-polar nanotubes to become polar molecules. This can be attributed to the charge transfer from the fluorine. This created dipole-dipole layers along the carbon nanotube walls. Testing of these fluorinated SWCNTs against normal state SWCNTs showed a difference in capacitance. It was determined that the fluorinated SWCNTs are advantageous in fabricating electrodes for capacitors and improve the wettability with aqueous electrolytes, which promotes the overall performance of supercapacitors. While this study brought to knowledge a more efficient example of capacitors, little is known about this new supercapacitor, large scale synthesis is lacking and is necessary for any massive production, and preparation conditions are quite tedious in achieving the final product.
Understanding the concept of capacitance can be helpful in understanding why nanotechnology is such a powerful tool for the design of higher energy storing capacitors. A capacitor's capacitance (C) or amount of energy stored is equal to the amount of charge (Q) stored on each plate divided by the voltage (V) between the plates. Another representation of capacitance is that capacitance (C) is approximately equal to the permittivity (?) of the dielectric times the area (A) of the plates divided by the distance (d) between them. Therefore, capacitance is proportional to the surface area of the conducting plate and inversely proportional to the distance between the plates.
Using carbon nanotubes as an example, a property of carbon nanotubes is that they have a very high surface area to store a charge. Using the above proportionality that capacitance (C) is proportional to the surface area (A) of the conducting plate; it becomes obvious that using nanoscaled materials with high surface area would be great for increasing capacitance. The other proportionality described above is that capacitance (C) is inversely proportional to the distance (d) between the plates. Using nanoscaled plates such as carbon nanotubes with nanofabrication techniques, gives the capability of decreasing the space between plates which again increases capacitance.