e hënë, 9 prill 2007

Nanotech Could Give Global Warming A Big Chill

From Forbes Nanotech Report July 2006.pdf

Thanks to Al Gore's eye-opening documentary "An Inconvenient Truth", global warming is once again front page news. Our addiction to fossil fuels is in large part responsible for the global warming crisis and has more than a little to do with the current mess in the Middle East and the fact that gasoline costs us more than $3 per gallon. Yet in all the recent talk of how to deal with the climate crisis, something has been missing. As Ray Kurzweil said in a recent Washington Post online discussion, "None of the global warming discussions mention the word 'nanotechnology'. Yet nanotechnology will eliminate the need for fossil fuels within 20 years." Kurzweil is referring to the potential of nanotechnology to harvest solar power—and only just one of a whole slew of nano-applications that may come to the rescue just in time.

There are two main routes to slowing down and eventually stopping global warming.

1. Get more out of our current fuels—decreasing our consumption while increasing the efficiency of our technology.
2. Stop using fossil fuels altogether and make the transition to clean and renewable energy sources.

To make the most of our current fuels, researchers are designing nanoscale sieves that can filter out environmentally toxic molecules in fuels and fuel byproducts. A promising area is in the custom designing of zeolites, porous nanoparticles that can extract more and cleaner gas from every oil barrel. Scientists are also designing nanosieves that can be fitted to power plants to capture carbon dioxide before it can enter the atmosphere. Another approach is fuel additives— the U.K. company Oxonica [OXN.L], for example, already has its product, Envirox Fuel Borne Catalyst, incorporated into premium commercial diesel which reduces fuel consumption by up to 10% and reduces carbon dioxide emissions by up to 15%.

Nanotech is playing a big role in increasing the efficiency of current technology, as well. There's a whole industry of "green manufacturing" growing up with nanotechnology as a main ingredient. For instance, nanocoatings, like Nansulate, conserve energy in high surface temperature industrial equipment. Buffalo, New York-based NanoDynamics is using nanocoating to make LED lighting more efficient—in May, the company licensed nine patents from Rutgers University related to an energy-reduced plasma process which NanoDynamics plans to use for, among other things, white LED lighting that could eventually replace everyday fluorescent and incandescent lighting. Lighting represents a huge portion of our energy use, and the market, according to NanoDynamics, is approximately $12 billion. White LEDs have been unsuccessful so far because they emit too much UV radiation, which lowers their efficiency and durability. The plasma coating that NanoDynamics is commercializing serves to block the UV light, rendering widespread use of white LED lighting potentially viable.

Decreasing energy consumption and increasing efficiency are good solutions for now…but the current crisis is really calling for new disruptive technologies. Take cars—a major source of greenhouse gas emissions. Alternatives to fossil fuel-burning combustion engines will come from powerful batteries or from fuel cells.

BATTERIES

Altair Nanotechnologies [ALTI], based in Reno, Nevada, makes high-powered nano-lithium ion batteries that take only six minutes to recharge and can be recharged up to 20,000 times—charge rates and lifecycles up to a hundred times higher than any commercially available batteries. Earlier this month, the company received its first order from Phoenix Mototcars, which is aiming to mass produce electric cars over the next few years. It placed a $750,000 order for Altair's batteries. And that's only a tiny chunk of the high performance battery market, which Altair estimates at $42 billion.

HYDROGEN FUEL CELLS

Beyond batteries, we are finally starting to get our first glimpses of a hydrogen economy. Fuel cells generate power by converting hydrogen into electricity, with only water as a byproduct. Because fuel cells have no moving parts and don't require combustion, they are more reliable than traditional engines. However, high costs are preventing fuel cells from making a big impact on the market. Membranes and catalysts are the two costly factors in fuel cells, so nanotech companies are scrambling to create cost effective versions of each.

On the membrane side, for instance, California- based PolyFuel is making hydrocarbon (rather than the more expensive and less durable fluorocarbon) membranes, both for use in both direct methanol fuel cells for portable devices and for hydrogen fuel cells for cars.

On the catalyst side, one promising company is California-based QuantumSphere. Fuel cell catalysts are usually made of platinum, which is expensive and a limited resource. QuantumSphere is creating alternatives to platinum, like its patented nanoscale nickel, at a fraction of the cost. High surface area makes nanoscale nickel act more like bulk platinum than bulk nickel. The company has yet to sell its catalysts to manufacturers of fuel cells, but says it met with three large Japanese electronics companies and one is currently testing its product.

QuantumSphere isnt the only one in the catalyst game—others include Nanostellar, Catalytic Solutions, and Nanophase [NANX]. Says QuantumSphere's CEO Kevin Maloney, "Catalysts alone have a $20 billion market, so there's plenty of pie to cut out to many players." Hydrogen fuel cells, however, require, well, hydrogen. And that's a problem. Hydrogen is not readily available in nature— you have to make it. QuantumSphere is working on that too—its most recent product is a hydrogen generator, which produces hydrogen through water electrolysis. Again, its patented nanonickel can replace platinum in electrodes that break apart water molecules and extract hydrogen, which in turn can power fuel cells. "The performance is incredible," says Maloney. "It's approaching the steam reformation process." But unlike steam reformation, which produces four pounds of greenhouse gases for every pound of hydrogen, the sole byproduct of QuantumSphere's hydrogen generator is plain old oxygen. The initial product is a small unit about 18 inches long and can be built into your car or kept at your house. A person simply feeds it water—sea water, beer, urine, it doesn't matter—and it makes hydrogen as you need it. That saves you the danger of traveling with pressurized hydrogen and it saves the building of a whole new infrastructure for people to fuel up.

For larger scale distribution of hydrogen, however, we have to find a way to store it. There are three basic options for hydrogen storage: you can compress it as a gas, which requires very high pressure; you can liquefy it, which requires very low temperatures; or you can store it in a what's called a hydride—a metal with a very porous surface that's capable of absorbing and then releasing hydrogen at practical pressures and temperatures, dramatically reducing operational energy. According to renowned MIT physicist Mildred Dresselhaus, hydrogen storage is one of the most challenging problems in creating a greener world.

Hydrides may well turn out to be a crucial ingredient in the hydrogen economy, and Quebec, Canada-based Hera is right on the ball. In addition to developing hydride materials for hydrogen storage, they're also using them for hydrogen compression. Rather than using electrically powered mechanical compressors, Hera employs hydrides, which require only a third of the energy. The hydrides absorb hydrogen at low pressure and then emit it at a much higher pressure when heated. Hera's hydrides are able to absorb, release, and even compress hydrogen due to novel chemical interactions taking place within them, enabled by their patented nano-catalyst. They believe their nano-catalyst is the key to the next generation of low-cost and lightweight advanced hydrides. The company is also developing advanced batteries for hybrids and hydrogen-powered vehicles. Privately-held Nanomix is another company to keep on eye on for developments in hydrogen storage.

SOLAR POWER

For all of these great potential solutions, there's a catch. Every one of these technologies requires an initial input of energy—energy to manufacture catalysts or membranes in the first place, energy to power a hydrogen generator. If that energy comes from a fossil fuel burning power plant, the problem has not been solved. The ultimate goal for greenies is to have a clean power source at every step. The options? Nuclear or solar power. Nuclear power hasn't been ruled out, but it comes with a batch of big concerns, the main one being that it would make it much harder to regulate the development of nuclear weapons. The ideal power source, then, is the sun, but to harvest it on a mass scale today's solar cells need to increase in efficiency and decrease in cost.

Lots of great nanotech companies are working on the problem-companies like Konarka, Nanosys and Solaix [In full disclosure: my venture firm Lux Capital is an equity investor in Nanosys]. The trick to lowering cost is to manufacture thin films rather than using bulk silicon wafers which are expensive to produce and in short supply because of demand from the semiconductor industry. In May, California-based Innovalight raised $7.5 million in venture capital to develop its thin film silicon ink technology, which taps into the quantum effects of silicon at the nanoscale. Its product consists of silicon nanocrystals suspended in a liquid ink that can be printed onto all kinds of surfaces, including portable devices. Because it uses far less silicon, according to CEO Conrad Burke it has the potential to reduce the cost of solar energy tenfold.

When it comes to thin films, the biggest newsmaker is Nanosolar. Last month, the company secured a whopping $100 million in funding led by hedge funds SAC Capital and GLG Partners—and announced that it is building what will be the world's largest solar cell manufacturing factory. Production of their plastic photovoltaic sheets will cost only 1/10 of what standard silicon solar panels cost to produce. The manufacturing facility will be located in California; in addition, the company plans to build a plant in Berlin where their solar cells will be made into solar panels in various product forms. There's no question Nanosolar is going to be a big player when it comes to harvesting solar power.What's more, it is a prime example of the fact that green nanotech is not only a technology of the future, but of the present.

Thin film solar cells are cheaper than silicon panels, but they're less efficient at absorbing light. Because of that, the next revolution in solar energy will come from quantum dots, which are poised to up solar cell efficiency significantly. In a solar cell, each incoming photon from the sun strikes the cell's surface and knocks off an electron— electrons flow through the material and, voila, electricity. But in ordinary semiconductor materials, there's a limit of only one electron knocked off per photon. Now, several research groups have found that at the nanoscale a single photon might free as many as seven electrons, greatly increasing the potential efficiency of solar cells.

New York-based Evident Technologies is using quantum dots to try to cut the costs of solar power. By exploiting the quantum effects at the nanoscale, it can fine-tune the absorptive properties of the material to capture more of the sun's energy, rendering them cheaper and more efficient than thin films or bulk silicon solar panels. Quantum dots can be made into flexible sheets, liquids, or transparent material.

THE ROAD AHEAD

This is just a sample of what's going on in nanotech regarding a greener planet. To be sure, nanotech is a front line technology in the fight against global warming. Says QuantumSphere's Director of Fuel Cell Research Kim McGrath. "It's going to bring these new technologies down to a palatable price point. It will enhance performance too, but at the end of the day it comes down to economics. If we can meet these price points, this will take off, and nanotech is on the road toward doing that."

"People ask, how high does gas have to be for these other applications to make sense? We're trying to get people to look at it differently," says Maloney. " We prefer to think about how low oil prices can go. Because when oil drops again, all of these technologies still have to make sense, otherwise they will fall by the wayside and funding disappears. So we're looking to be the best solution even at really low prices. Once huge companies figure out how to make money from this, it's going to take off way quicker than anyone thinks."


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