Firms may help U.S. declare
independence from foreign oil

July 11, 2002 With instability reigning in the Middle East, “energy security” has become a major concern for the United States. This could be good news for the burgeoning small tech sector.

Though no one small technology is likely to be the elixir that solves all the energy dependence problems, these technologies promise incremental improvements to existing energy processes.

Of all the small tech energy applications to date, nanomaterials that create catalysts have had the biggest commercial impact. They are used widely in automobiles and power equipment to prevent environmental pollution. This process involves creating nanoparticles and then recombining them into artificial structures that reduce the amount of energy needed to carry out a reaction.

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Lightyear Technologies Inc. in North Vancouver, British Columbia, recently developed a family of nanomaterials that can extract oil from tar sand deposits without creating environmentally unfriendly greenhouse gas emissions. By injecting Lightyear’s highly reactive materials into the extraction process, companies can generate the heat required to separate out the oil below ground, preventing greenhouse gas emissions from escaping into the atmosphere.

“Our technology is an incremental improvement over what has always been done,” said Charles Rendina, a vice president at Lightyear. The company recently applied to receive a $9 million grant from the Canadian government to test the materials in the field.

Rendina said the technology could provide a boost to energy production in North America because of the shear amount of energy stored in the tar sand reserves, the bulk of which are located in Canada. The largest recoverable reserve in Canada is thought to have more oil than the reserves in Saudi Arabia.

To date, companies have been forced to use costly strip-mining techniques to extract the oil, which can only reach about 25 percent of the reserves. Lightyear believes its catalysts can improve yields by 25 percent while simultaneously helping Canada meet the greenhouse gas guidelines outlined in the Kyoto Protocol, the international climate control agreement that has so far been ratified by more than 50 developed nations.

The company will likely face competition from other nanomaterial manufacturers, such as Dow Chemical Co. and Nanophase Technologies Corp., which are also looking to apply their materials to a wide array of applications.

Further downstream, car manufacturers are also experimenting with imbedding nanoscale particles into materials in an effort to build stronger and lighter vehicles. “The biggest effect on gas mileage is vehicle weight,” said Iran Thomas, director of the Division of Material Science and Engineering, at the U.S. Department of Energy. “Shaving off several pounds from a vehicle’s weight will increase fuel economy significantly.”

General Motors Corp., in a joint development with Basell, Southern Clay Products and Blackhawk Automotive Plastics, is experimenting with a thermoplastic olefin (TPO) nanocomposite, which it is using in a dealer add-on step-assist for its Chevy Astro and GMC Safari models. If the material performs well, the folks in GM’s Materials and Processes Laboratory are optimistic that nanoclay composites could become standard equipment on vehicle models by as early as 2003.

Another area of promise is the use of nanotechnology to lower manufacturing and material costs for energy processes that are currently too expensive. NexTech Materials Ltd. is an Ohio-based company that is developing high-tech materials and manufacturing processes for applications in fuel cells. The company produces a ceramic powder synthesis that is used in making components for solid oxide fuel cells.

“The problem with fuel cells is that, in terms of cost, they need to get down to around $500 per kilowatt,” said Steve Campbell, NexTech’s marketing director. Campbell believes nanotechnology could provide the performance boost and cost-saving measures that fuel cells need to get over the hump. As an example, he said, NexTech makes a nanoscale electrolyte powder that can be deposited onto porous cathode tubes. The company has also come up with a low-cost manufacturing approach for spraying the electrolytes onto the tubes — based on nanoscale technology.

While Campbell admits the fuel cell market is still very much in the development stage, the company is currently selling its ceramic materials to research institutes and fuel cell manufacturers all over the world.

Despite such promising developments, questions remain about the commercial viability of many small technologies in the energy world. “There are a lot of claims of interesting performance but nothing remotely commercial that is currently viable,” said Steve Gehl, director of strategic studies at the Electric Power Research Institute, a nonprofit research outfit. “There’s still a lot of work that must be done before we manufacture this stuff reliably and in large amounts without inducing flaws or defects.”

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