NANOTECHNOLOGY COULD CHANGE HOW THE ELECTRICAL industry does its job on several fronts. The tools electricians use are going to change in the next year or two, while dramatic shifts in the way power is generated, transmitted and stored will happen in the coming decades. Researchers and a growing commercial market are creating a new energy world order in which alternative energy can be easily and inexpensively transmitted across continents, and electricity can be stored in buildings, homes and even backpacks.
How soon this will take effect depends on whom you ask. “People commonly overestimate in the short term and underestimate in the long term,” said Wade Adams, director of Rice University’s Center for Nanoscale Science.
Nanotechnology is the manufacture and manipulation of materials at the atomic scale. Scientists are applying this molecular building process to everything from sunscreen to life-saving medical applications to our entire power infrastructure. However, much is still theoretical.
New technology, including nanoscience, rarely lives up to the hype surrounding its inception. However, decades from now, Adams said, nanotechnology may revolutionize the way we use and distribute power.
Several universities have large-scale nanoscience research projects underway that may result in even greater applications. The technology—with implications on the electrical industry—has been developing for years. One big discovery occurred when Richard Smalley of Rice University discovered carbon atoms bound in the form of a ball, which won him the 1996 Nobel Prize for chemistry.
Why was this such an important finding? For the electrical industry, the benefit of pure carbon is its stability. Unlike diamond or graphite carbon, the pure form with which Smalley worked offers significant benefits. The current electrical grid, composed of copper wires, poses problems for the kind of high-energy transportation that scientists envision is possible. Copper wires lose electrons through resistance and these inefficiencies slow the transportation of power and also limit how far it can go.
Single-wall carbon nanotubes—nicknamed buckytubes—offer a solution that amounts to a sheet of pure carbon molecules rolled up into a cylinder 20 microns in diameter. Smalley contended that the resulting quantum “armchair” conduction makes the microscopic carbon tubes the best conductors of electricity ever discovered.
Adams agrees. He envisions power traveling thousands of miles without resistance, zipping from carbon nanotube to nanotube in the blink of an eye. But, so far, these tubes are still more theoretical than practical.
As the next step, Rice University’s Center for Nanoscale Science has developed a new process for production, basically growing the tubes from seeds. These seeds amount to short lengths of buckytubes with nanocatalyst particles attached to the open ends. The process produces long tubes—clones of the tubes from which the seeds were made. Once cloning is successful, as Smalley reported to Congress before his 2005 death, it should be possible to make pounds of buckytubes and to spin these nanotubes into continuous fibers. They could be used as nanoscale antennae for use in the conversion of sunlight.
Rice University doesn’t stop there. With the National Renewable Energy Laboratory and Air Products, scientists are developing these same carbon nanotubes for storage of hydrogen. In this case, they must control the diameter of the tube so that the absorption energy of hydrogen on the outside and inside of the tube is high enough to give the necessary storage capacity, without being too high. These tubes could be used in fuel cells and batteries as well as super capacitors of the electric drive system.
Together with low-cost local energy storage and high-speed transfer of electrical power, solar and wind power could become dominant providers, Adams said.
It would provide utilities with the ability to transport hundreds of gigawatts of power down a single cable. And to make it work, Adams said, “You don’t have to build a new infrastructure, just rewire it.”
With this system, renewable energy would be enabled, allowing the power that is generated in one area—such as solar in Arizona or wind in the Dakotas—to be transmitted quickly and easily to urban areas where it is needed.
“We think this is going to allow a revolution in electricity,” Adams said. “I think we should save oil for high needs such as the military.”
Adams also foresees a time when homes and buildings can install washing-machine-size storage devices for up to 500 kilowatts of energy, courtesy of nanotechnology.
Carbon Nanotechnologies Inc. (CNI), Houston, is in the process of commercializing the carbon nanotubes that result from Rice research. Founded by three Rice University professors, CNI focuses on how to synthesize or manufacture grades of single-wall nanotubes. That work includes developing ways to generate armchair quantum wire through the seeds. Ken McElrath, CNI’s vice president for product development, described that process as still at least a decade away.
“A lot of our work is evolutionary,” he said, meaning that the company creates products that may improve devices such as hand tools with a harder, stronger and lighter casing.
CNI has already produced enough carbon nanotubes to make a paint for plastic that could be used for hand tools, saws or drills, making the tools stronger and reducing the risk of tools building an electrical charge. Although there are tool manufacturers interested in the product, no one is currently making it.
In addition, CNI is building reactors that it uses to synthesize the nanotubes at a higher rate.
“We’re trying to build larger reactors and make the nanotubes in larger quantities,” McElrath said. “We have reactors in place that could produce tens of pounds a day.”
While these large plans may still be decades ahead, some of the low-hanging fruit is also being picked by solar and nanotechnology companies that can use the atomic-level science to lower costs of solar energy by 10 to 20 percent.
Within the electrical industry, some companies have seized on some other immediate applications and are using nanotechnology to improve the effectiveness of solar panels and to offer battery-type power storage. Innovalight, Santa Clara, Calif., is manipulating nanotechnology-based printed solar cells for development of ultra-low cost, lightweight solar cells using a proprietary silicon ink-based technology. This would be an alternative to most solar-energy modules, which are made from crystalline silicon wafers, which are expensive to manufacture and in short supply due to demands from the semiconductor industry.
Common construction tools will be commercially available with nanosized particles painted on their surfaces by year’s end. Rutgers University’s Center for Nanomaterials Research, working with NEI Corp., Piscataway, N.J., has established a nanotechnology research program with the International Advanced Research Centre for Powder Metallurgy and New Materials, Hyderabad, India. It is exploring ways to make metals harder, ceramics lighter and stronger, and protective coatings more wear-resistant. These and other nanoparticle-infused materials will be used for machine tools, fuel cells, electronic components, medical devices and automobile finishes.
Researchers are developing nanosized powders containing tungsten, cobalt and carbon, that are applied to metals as a coating or an alloy to increase the wear-resistance of drill bits, cutting tools and machine bearings. These researchers are also studying spraying techniques to make nanostructured powders and to apply powders to materials surfaces for protection.
NanoDynamics Inc., Buffalo, N.Y., also plans to use the Rutgers technology to prepare fluorescent nanomaterials for high-efficiency light-emitting diode (LED) lighting. The materials used today to make white LEDs emit a great deal of ultraviolet light, reducing the light’s efficiency, said Alan Rae, NanoDynamics vice president of marketing and business development. UV rays have to be filtered out and can have long-term damaging effects to the plastic coating of the lights, shortening their life span.
“If you coat the LED with plastic, the UV will degrade the plastic. This is a way to put a nanosized gloss that contains tiny nanocrystals of fluorescent material that changes the UV to visible light so you actually get more efficiency,” Rae said.
NanoDynamics is producing the fluorescent material spray that eliminates the UV rays, extending the life of the light as well as making it more efficient.
“We’re looking for partners in this,” Rae said. “It’s still very new. It’s a more efficient plasma. The technology is pretty much good to go.” EC
SWEDBERG is a freelance writer based in western Washington. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.