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Quantifying the disruptive power of nanotechnology

White Paper

“How Nanotechnology is Changing the Energy Equation”
March 2005

© NanoMarkets, LC • 47781 Scotsborough Sq. # 113 • Sterling, VA 20165 • 1


How Nanotechnology is Changing the Energy Equation
By Paul Holister Associate Analyst NanoMarkets, LC NanoMarkets believes that nanotechnology isalready affecting all of the most interesting energy technologies and will create dramatic change in the world energy picture. For those currently without access to reliable energy, new nano-engineered solutions will improve their quality of life. For those saddled with inefficient energy storage, generation and transmission options, nanotechnology will provide new power sources that will drive downtheir effective cost per kilowatt and/or enable improvements in productivity. For investors interested in alternative energy markets, nanotechnology will provide opportunities but with many of the same risks inherent in emerging technology markets. This White Paper reviews the many ways in which the energy industry is being (and will continue to be) impacted by nanotech. The new nano-enabled energymarkets will also be the subject of several reports that will appear from NanoMarkets’ energy consulting practice in coming months.

Fossil Fuels and Nanocatalysis
Despite all the fuss about alternative energy sources, the truth is that no one sees our reliance on fossil fuels going away any time soon. However, this need not mean that the current level of dependence on OPEC oil will bemaintained. There is a lot more natural gas around than oil, and even more coal. It has been possible to create liquid hydrocarbon fuels from both coal and gas since the 1920s using the Fischer-Tropsch process. As the cost of oil has increased, a clean form of diesel made in this way has become commercially viable. China has recently taken a nanotech-enabled step in this area. The $2-billion Shenhuan coalliquefaction project, using U.S.-developed nanocatalytic technology, is expected to be an economically competitive way of producing fuel. The key impact of nanotechnology in this part of the energy sector is to improve reaction efficiencies and control through nanostructuring. Catalysis happens on surfaces, and nanostructuring can open up much more surface for a given volume, increasing reactionrates. It is not that simple, of course⎯reactants need to make their way to the catalytic site at a rate sufficient to exploit reaction rates, and this can imply structures with mixed scales. But building large and complex structures from the bottom up is very much a discipline that is evolving under the nanotech umbrella.

© NanoMarkets, LC • 47781 Scotsborough Sq. # 113 • Sterling, VA 20165 • 2571-434-7520

Enhanced Combustion Systems and Fuel Cells
A lot of development has been seen recently in “mini-turbines,” using the same principles as larger power stations but on a smaller scale. For such established technologies the impact of nanotechnology is not likely to be revolutionary but there are certainly applications of nanocrystalline metallics, ceramics and composites of thesethat can improve performance parameters, especially lifetimes. These systems are competing directly with larger fuel cells for small-scale industrial use. And fuel cells in general are also being impacted by nanotechnology in a number of ways. For example, fullerenes are being used to replace large polymers in electrolytic membranes, enabling lower temperature operation. Fullerenes are also beingused in proton exchange membranes where they help to move the protons. Nanoporous carbon may also have promise in electrodes⎯new forms have been created in recent years⎯and nanoparticulate catalysts can be used for proton/electron dissociation. Meanwhile, “Buckypaper,” has been shown to have great promise as combined electrode material and catalyst support, while nanosensors are finding a role...
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