Nano puts energy, environment in harmony

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July 23, 2004 – Our energy needs often conflict with our environment and health. The production, use and distribution of energy sources such as fossil fuels have been linked to an array of problems, from global warming and greenhouse gases, to damaging oil spills and debilitating pollutants.

Coal mining and oil drilling carry their own baggage, from ecological destruction to erosion to leaching.

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Nanotechnology offers an opportunity to get the desirable benefits of energy — reliable and affordable power — with less or none of the drawbacks.

The elementary steps of energy conversion occur on the nanoscale in processes such as charge transfer. Working at that scale allows us to develop innovative approaches for energy devices, storage and generation.

Opportunities include:

•novel, lightweight materials to improve vehicle efficiency;

•selective catalysts for clean and energy-efficient processes;

•increased efficiency and reduced cost of solar energy;

•methodologies enabling water to be split via sunlight to generate hydrogen; and

•efficient and low-cost fuel cells, batteries, etc.

Nanotechnology-enabled products have the potential not only to greatly reduce existing environmental harm associated with fossil fuels, but also to prevent future environmental degradation with affordable, efficient and effective clean-energy alternatives.

Examples of such nanotechnology-enabled products include environmental monitoring devices that allow for quick and accurate detection of compounds at extremely low concentrations in both accessible and hostile environments. The availability of real-time data can help expedite cleanup efforts, minimizing damage when an accident occurs.

Nanotechnology is also a driving force in the development of novel filter materials that remove contaminants from air and water. These approaches promise to achieve safety levels far better than current standards require. Due to size and cost reductions, these technologies can be ubiquitously placed in environmental settings.

Additional technologies are being refined that use nanoparticles to treat contaminated groundwater and subsurface areas, resulting in minimal or no environmental damage.

But the true excitement and promise of nanotechnology lies in the development of cost-effective and efficient “green” or environmentally benign energy sources. The use of solar and wind power as viable and sustainable energy sources may be achieved more rapidly and effectively using nanotechnology.

At present, solar energy devices have low-energy efficiencies and often exist as large, unwieldy attachments to structures. Nanotechnology researchers are advancing the state of photovoltaics to enable increased energy production, while achieving reductions in component size and cost.

In addition, the development of novel solar energy storage units will enable continuous operation of electrical, heating/cooling equipment using the sun’s power. Further successes will propel solar energy forward as a more desirable option among the various energy sources available.

The effect of nanotechnology on the evolution of wind as an energy source could lead to improved designs incorporating novel energy-storage capabilities, improved energy-transmission devices and more compact structures. Using nanotechnology, it may be possible to make wind turbines that are smaller with higher energy yields and to use this harnessed energy to generate electricity and heat with minimal energy losses.

Such advances would result in more aesthetically attractive, affordable, and energy-efficient structures that could be used as alternative power sources for society.

Current research into fuel cell technology is another area where nanotechnology use and development is making progress. Advances include increases in miniaturization and energy efficiency, reductions in cost, increased flexibility in fuel type used, improved integration with other systems and improvements in reliability and durability.

Such advances will result from the use of alternative nanomaterials and innovative nanotechnology-derived devices.

The merging or fusion of these alternative energy sources could also occur as a result of nanotechnology. Incorporation of solar, wind and fuel cell components into power-generating equipment could provide substantial savings in space, cost and time.

Such devices would provide environmentally clean alternative energy sources that are smaller, more powerful and more economically feasible.

The technological advances that nanotechnology offers through environmentally benign energy sources could help achieve the goals of a sustainable planet and a healthy environment for all.

These goals will be realized through elimination of waste generated from burning fossil fuels, through decreased reliance on non-renewable energy resources that mar the environment upon removal, and through attendant reductions in environmental damage from fossil fuel accidents such as spills and leaks.

Clean, affordable energy sources will enable the Environmental Protection Agency to continue to protect human health and safeguard the natural environment.

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