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Conference: Nanotechnology Holds Promise for Energy Breakthroughs

Nanotechnology holds promise for necessary breakthroughs in a number of critical energy sectors, including solar cells, thermoelectric conversion and transport, hydrogen storage, and electrochemical conversion and storage (i.e., batteries, capacitors and fuel cells), according to scientists participating in the first Energy Nanotechnology International Conference (ENIC2006) held June 26-28 at MIT.

The technical conference included invited and contributed presentations from academia and industry. Among the speakers were Michael Graetzel, professor at the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne in Switzerland, and MIT Institute Professor Mildred Dresselhaus.

Solar. Researchers described a number of approaches to developing solar photon conversion systems that have an appropriate combination of high efficiency and low capital cost.

MIT’s Vladimir Bulovic, for one, said that nanotechnologies such as nanodots and nanorods are potentially disruptive technologies in the solar field. Bulovic is fabricating quantum dot photovoltaics using a microcontact printing process.

I think we’ll see the peaking of oil and natural gas sooner than most of those in the fossil fuel industry think. By 2035 photovoltaics could produce about 10 percent of the world’s electricity and play a major role in reducing carbon dioxide emissions.

—David Carlson, chief scientist at BP Solar

Thermoelectrics. Thermoelectric devices are able to increase the efficiency of current technology and processes by transforming typical waste heat in combustion processes into electrical energy without the production of any environmentally harmful by-products.

There is a strong incentive to develop novel thermoelectric materials for power generation with a vastly improved thermoelectric performance. Nanomaterials have a role to play in meeting this challenge because of expectations for enhanced power factor and greatly reduced thermal conductivity in suitably chosen systems. Therefore general, convenient synthetic routes to bulk nanostructured materials, designed to be thermodynamically stable and thus practically permanent, are needed.

—Mercouri G. Kanatzidis, Michigan State University

Hydrogen. Mildred Dresselhaus gave a plenary talk titled “Addressing Grand Energy Challenges Through Advanced Materials” in which she focused on the large gap between present science/technology knowhow and the requirements in efficiency/cost for a sustainable hydrogen economy.

The hydrogen initiative involves an effort to greatly increase our capability to produce hydrogen using renewable energy sources such as photons from the sun and water from the oceans, since hydrogen is an energy carrier and not a fuel found on our planet.

The hydrogen storage problem has been identified as the most challenging since neither liquid hydrogen nor solid hydrogen have enough energy density to meet the DOE requirements for hydrogen storage for automotive applications.

The third element of the hydrogen initiative involves the development of fuel cells with a much enhanced performance and lower cost, that would come about through the development of more effective catalysts in the anode and cathode of the fuel cell and more efficient membranes operating at elevated temperatures allowing proton flow but inhibiting hydrogen gas flow.

For each of the three components of the hydrogen initiative, hydrogen production, storage and utilization, it appears that the special properties of materials at the nanoscale can be utilized to enhance performance in a way that cannot be done with bulk materials.

—Mildred Dresselhaus, MIT

Energy storage. Speakers in this track focused on fuel cells, batteries and supercapacitors.

Many significant efforts are being made to identify and utilize new energy sources, to increase production of existing sources, to increase conversion and storage efficiency, and, equally important, to reduce pollution. However, incremental improvement will not be sufficient. What is needed are new approaches.

At the same time, we are entering an exciting era where we now have the technology to engineer materials on a nanometer scale, i.e. at dimensions comparable to the size of individual atoms and molecules. But what does nanotechnology have to do with the world’s massive energy needs? In my keynote address, I will explore nanotechnology as an “outside the box” technology that has the potential to “re-invent” (transform) some long-known but little-used technologies to the point that they may offer significant improvement over the accepted ways of converting and storing energy.

One such transformation would be to use capacitors rather than batteries for regenerative energy storage. Ridiculous? Perhaps not. In MIT’s Laboratory for Electromagnetic and Electronic Systems (LEES), we are exploring a nanostructured ultracapacitor electrode that has the potential to increase a capacitor’s energy storage density to equal that of a chemical battery.

Another technology that we are exploring is the use of nanostructured emissive coatings and filters to significantly increase the efficiency of direct thermophotovoltaic (TPV) generation of electricity from heat.

—Joel Schindall, MIT

There is widespread effort and excitement in new materials for storing and releasing lithium or hydrogen. New materials are needed if rechargeable batteries and fuel cell systems are to be more competitive in the transportation sector, for example.

—Brent Fultz, California Institute of Technology

The conference was organized by the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME) Nanotechnology Institute. Manuscripts submitted to the conference will be published in a future issue of the ASME Journal of Heat Transfer.




Very impressive. Especially for investors. Bigger even then dot com.


Speaking of nanotechnology...


We know the general direction where we have to go now. Almost all electrical.. generated by nuclear power, batteries for vehicles.

Materials science is advancing greatly in recent years. Nanotech is enabling things that simply couldn't be done without nano-engineering. Like fast charging batteries that Toshiba plans to bring to the market in 2007.

Also stronger and lighter materials for vehicles. Even a 5% reduction in vehicle weight would have a large impact on global fuel use.


Nanotech is some truly awe-inspiring and terrifying stuff. It'll be fascinating to see the direction its applications take once its evolutionary process hits mainstream consciousness.


O my god! “nanotechnology” is 95% scum to influence illiterate investors! Remaining 5% is pretty obvious explorations of developing technologies like carbon nanotubes, adsorbent materials, and battery electrodes. Nothing magic, gust applied science!

allen zheng

While I do agree it is just the continuation of applying science, Nanotech may end up doing things taht just a few years ago would be sci-fi, if not magic (way better than the David Blaine stuff, more like realization of tall tales, and various myths).


Get small!! I've believed for a long time that small really is beautiful and it is the future. Now if we could just find a way to nanosize people, think how small all our toys could be? Nanocars!! Now we're really talking green car.

Harvey D.

There's no doubt in my mind that we will (in the next 20-40 years) make do without OIL/GAS (the biggest source of GHG) and that clean electricity + limited alternative fuels will replace most if not all the fossil energy we use today.

Clean sustainable Wind and specially Sun energy will be produced in ever increasing quantities at much lower cost. Today's problems with distribution and storage could be solved within 10-15 years.

Unfortunately...., today's Oil giants may become tomorrow's clean electricity producers and distributors because they will take an active part in the transistion in order to survive. Having the capital $$ required, they will also be closely associated will the production of nano solar panels and on-board + stationary electricity storage devices (ESS).

Small early nano electrical devices developers-producers will be bought out (probably at a very high price). It's just a question of time. There is no way to stop OPEC countries from doing it too with the billions Oil $$$ they already got from us and with the many more $$$$ billions they will get in the next 20+ years.

Nationalizing electricity production and distribution (a current very non-American practice) may be the only way to avoid buying high price electricity form OPEC countries dictators, 20 some years from now.

Robert McLeod

One of the first areas to look for advances from nanoscale stuff is catalysis. Quality control of nanoparticle production has advanced quite a bit in the last few years.


I expect big oil to get into clean energy, and OPEC dollars. And this will be bigger than the dot.com boom. However, our security depends on distributed energy production and a more flexible grid to accomodate it. That is possible with better digital controls. And it is necessary for any crisis -- whether it be bird flu, or terrorist attack.

It doesn't matter who manufactures the solar cells on my roof, as long as they feed directly into my home and I can get off the grid in an emergency. Bring it on.


t: "Nanocars!! Now we're really talking green car."
Color, at that scale cannot be seen.

Rafael Seidl

Materials are always a limiting factor in mechanical and electrical engineering, so better options at affordable prices are welcome. What sets nanotechnology apart from regular chemistry/metallurgy is that it involves deliberate manipulation at the submicron scale (i.e. scales of a a few hundred nanometers are still considered nanotechnology by the marketing geniuses).

Afaiac, the hydrogen economy remains someone's wet pipedream. The only way you can transport hydrogen for a mobile application cost-effectively is when it is tied to carrier atoms (e.g. carbon) such that the fuel is liquid in ambient conditions. LPG and DME require low pressures (~10 bar) for liquefaction at room temperature, but even that is an undesirable overhead. CNG is already marginal.

Quite interesting is the progress in thermoelectric materials that exploit the Seebeck-effect. Historically, efficiencies were around 2%, but with new thin-film materials and manufacturing techniques the hope is that could go up to 20% (of enthalpy in engine-out exhaust). AIn that range, they would be very interesting for automotive applications IFF the price is right:


The nanoscale supercapacitor technology from MIT may not be the breakthrough it might seem, unless it includes an improved manufacturing process:


Stephen J.

"Nationalizing electricity production and distribution... may be the only way to avoid buying high price electricity from OPEC's countries' dictators, 20 years from now."

This is actually very unlikely. First and foremost, the biggest and most advanced oil companies are not owned by the countries of OPEC -- Saudi Arabia, to name the biggest, has to import virtually all its technological and operational expertise from the West. OPEC is only powerful because of geological good fortune -- that factor will not apply for electricity generation.

Secondly is the fact that even if electricity cartels do develop, they will find out (should they attempt to price-gouge) the same thing that OPEC found in the '80s after the oil price crash: Keeping prices artificially high will ultimately reduce demand and hurt yourself, not your consumers. And if there are competing cartels, they have every interest in offering the best prices they can in order to gain their share of the market.

Thirdly, history demonstrates that nationalizing resources almost never ensures the best price for your citizens; if anything, it tends to aggravate prices, as the lack of competition means there is no incentive to improve service and no incentive to control expenses (which end up getting passed on to your citizens anyway). And in a global marketplace, nationalized commodity companies competing with privately owned commodity companies tend to have distinct disadvantages: they are less flexible, less efficient, and less able to grow with the market.

Government intervention has its place, especially when it comes to committing the upfront capital investment required. But once the ball starts rolling, it should be left to roll on its own. Let the technology stand or fall on its own merits.

Roger Pham

Even though the "hydrogen economy" is still a pipedream, it is a worthwhile one, wet or dry, for someones who are smothered daily due to the choking exhaust of millions of vehicle's tail pipes, smoketack from coal-burning power plants or other activities courtesy of the "carbon economy", people suffering asthma or emphysema, or people who have relatives suffering from the numerous cancer's death from air pollution or ground water pollution courtesy of the "carbon economy".

"The only way you can transport hydrogen for a mobile application cost-effectively is when it is tied to carrier atoms (e.g. carbon) such that the fuel is liquid in ambient conditions. LPG and DME require low pressures (~10 bar) for liquefaction at room temperature, but even that is an undesirable overhead. CNG is already marginal." Hydrogen can be transported quite economically in compressed form at 300 bars (~5000psi) that would give a car a range of ~100-120 miles, sufficient for daily commuting to be refilled in a few minutes every 3-4 days while you have a cup of coffee at the refill station, or even at home if you have a refill kit at home.

What we hope that nanotech can accomplish is to be able to produce hydrogen from solar or wind at a price competitive with existing gasoline prices. GE has promised to be able to do that in a few years....Meanwhile, there is no dream more beautiful than that of a future "hydrogen economy", pollution-free and disease & cancer-free.


a lot of possibility in a lot of way of work !!!


Believe you or not (probably not), the world is moving very fast to energy production abundance and overproduction. Y-e-e, it could sound crazy, but think what would think Maltus 100 years ago if someone would tell him about food abundance and overproduction. I dismiss hunger problems of Africa and alike due to their general barbarity and inability to address ANY problem in sane way.

Once I read then potato producers of Idaho could easily meat all caloric needs of entire US… But who need this potato/starch diet? Same with energy production. Who need total energy solution of hydrogen, nuclear, biofuel, solar, or other pipedream “total solution” technology? What would millions of oil industry workers do if someone will invent perpetuum mobile (hello to German coal miners)?


An interesting thought Andrey, you may very well be right about having an abundance of energy. I do think that we may go through a rough spot while we make the transition from our current paradime. What is called a pipe dream today could be the reality of tomorrow. Rafael refers to the hydrogen economy as a pipe dream. The problem today with Hydrogen is not that it doesn't work, it does, it just can't compete with gas. (who decided that 300km was the minimum usefull distance of a car anyway, I only go that far in a trip once every couple of years. If I can plug in at home or had a electrolysis machine at home I'd only need service stations on the hiway for long trips.

I personally think that it is more likely that electricity will become the energy carrier of choice for small vehicles (with PHEV as a bridge). I still support any research, even if the task is daunting. Even if hydrogen only winds up in niche markets I don't believe that any research is wasted. Progress in the area of Hydrogen research may have far ranging affects in areas we haven't even thought of yet.

Roger Pham

There is no doubt that it would only take 0.16% of the world's land area as solar collector to meet all the world's energy needs. As more and more solar collectors are being built, and more efficient and cost effective technology developed to convert solar energy to electricity, hydrogen and methane gas, the day will come when we will have a surplus of renewable energy. The problem now is that there are still too much easily-extracted oil underground that the people who run our government want to be able to sell at cut-throat prices, such that only token effort or lip service is given to the development of renewable energy.



You make a good point about funding hydrogen research even if isn't the most likely to be the 'solution'.. Or as Andrey points out a big part of the solution, as no one thing has to be the total solution in and of itself to be worthwhile.

I am quite confident that the future for land vehicles is electric batteries. But who knows what applications we might find for hydrogen.. or what spin offs we will find from the research. The only thing is I might tilt the prioritization of alternative fuel funding towards battery research.

Not even factoring in instability costs.. but the US imports what 15 million barrels a day of oil? At 70 dollars a barrel that is about a billion dollars a day leaving the country. And 350 billion a year! I think a few billion in research here or there isn't even noticeable compared to that. More then enough to fund even long shots.

tom deplume

The laws of physics are against hydrogen storage improvements. Its only advantage over zinc may be refueling time. Since miles/liter of zinc would be at least 3 times that of liquid hydrogen the time advantage may disappear.

Roger Pham

Great point, Tom.
Indeed, zinc may solve the problem of long-term hydrogen storage, for example, excess energy produced in the sunny summer months to be used in the winter when little solar energy will be available. For short term energy storage and for automotive application in local commuting when range above 120 miles is not required, the question must be raised is whether it would be cost-effective with direct hydrogen storage at pressure of 5000psi (~300 bars). Would more equipment (and additional weight) be needed in the car to process the powdered zinc into H2, and store the zinc oxide for recycling at a fuel station? Consider the cost of transporting of zinc oxide back to the plant for regeneration of it into elemental zinc? If the car already has a hi-pressure tank, then, for extending the car's range up to 3 times, one simpply needs to fill up the tank with methane instead of hydrogen. The engine, of course, must be adapted to run on methane also.

Anyone with additional info, please kindly inform us.

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