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Applications of Nanotechnology for Energy

written by: johnzactruba • edited by: Lamar Stonecypher • updated: 5/18/2011

The applications of nanotechnology for energy are many. Nanotechnology batteries and nanotechnology solar are in advanced stages of development. Through using nanotechnology other physical phenomena are also used to produce and store energy.

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    What is Nanotechnology?

    A brick is the smallest building block in construction. Whatever you do, the strength of the building is limited to the strength of the brick. The brick itself is made of minute particles of clay bonded together. One has limited control over how the particle of clay forms. Each particle of clay in turn is formed from molecules joined together in a particular pattern dictated by the forces of nature. What happens if it is possible to arrange these molecules in a pattern that provides greater strength? You get stronger clay and a stronger brick. This results in a much thinner, but stronger wall. This technology of arranging molecules the way we want is a basis of nanotechnology.

    In the early days, paint was available in a limited variety of colors for you to choose. Now most of the paint shops have mixers that allow the users to choose the color they require. The manufacturers have to produce and stock only a few basic colors, reducing production and inventory costs at much greater satisfaction to the consumer. The future of nanotechnology will be the personal nano-factories, like the paint mixers, that allow you to produce any material that you require. The shops have to carry only stock in molecular form.

    Advances in nanotechnology are moving at an exponential rate. It will eventually encompass every field of human activity including energy.

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    How Nanotechnology will help the Energy Sector

    The advent of mobile phones, personal computers, and other electronic devices, along with the miniaturization of technology, necessitates a greater requirement for mobile power sources of longer durability. Nanotechnology ideally suits this need and will manifest itself in two critical areas. First is in the conversion of energy as in a solar cell, and the second is in the storage of electricity in batteries and capacitors. The static nature of electricity generation and storage in these systems ideally suit themselves for nanotechnology application.

    A tremendous amount of research is going on in the nanotechnology field, even though only a few items have so far reached the commercial stage. Since the work is at a molecular level, developments require sophisticated facilities that require a lot of time and investment.

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    Solar cells

    Solar cells absorb photons from the sun’s rays. Currently available materials can absorb photons only in a limited wavelength. This is why efficiency levels are very low in solar cells. With nanotechnology, it is possible to have materials with different molecular structures in a single solar cell, resulting in absorption of photons in much wider wavelengths. Because of the much smaller particle sizes, the area available for absorption of energy is also considerably higher. This can considerably improve efficiency from the current 12 % to more than 50 %.

    Printable roll-on solar panels using nanotechnology are almost on the market. Higher power ratings per panel reduce the area requirements. The basic cost of the panel itself maybe high, but the balance of system costs is considerably less than other solar panels. For more details, go to the NanoSolar website.

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    Thin film panel solar cells from NanoSolar

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    Batteries from Nanotechnology

    Nanotechnology is capable of producing anodes and cathodes from nano-particles. In a lithium battery, this helps provide a more intense transfer of ions than in conventional anodes. This results in higher life cycles, lower charging rates, and higher voltages and capacities, all with smaller form factors. Batteries will last longer giving more power.

    Materials like nano-phosphates are already available commercially. A123Systems is an example of a company involved in the production of nanotechnology batteries.

    Ink infused with carbon nanotubes printed on ordinary paper is another potential battery advance that is in development. Imagine the painted walls of your house becoming the battery, or even your dress or suit becoming the battery.

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    Ultra Capacitors

    Capacitors are another form of energy storage. Because of the huge surface area requirements, the use of capacitors has been limited to low energy applications. Because of the very small size of nano-particles, it is possible to produce highly porous electrodes, which tremendously increase the surface area, leading to production of ultra-capacitors that can have much higher charging and discharge rates at higher voltage levels.

    These ultra-capacitors will be the energy source for equipment with heavy power requirements, including automobiles and trucks. These will be part of the micro grid that is set to revolutionize the electricity distribution system as well. EnerG2 has more information about ultra-capacitors.

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    Other Applications of Nanotechnology

    Nanotechnology is also making headway in energy production in hitherto unknown areas as well as from physical phenomenon’s that were earlier unfeasible with ordinary materials.

    Thermoelectric effect: thermocouple applications of the Peltier -Seebeck effect is very common in the industrial world for the measurement of heat. A reversal of this effect to produce electricity is under development using nano-particles.

    Piezometric crystals are very familiar in our daily life. From quartz watch movements to cooking gas igniters, these provide a minute form of energy. Nanotechnology will help in producing much higher electric power. It will be possible to convert our daily movements to electricity that can power our mobile devices. Even the slightest breeze or vibration can be useful to produce power.

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    Nanotechnology will be the future way of life and will help us produce energy that does not affect our environment.