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Technology

Synergy: Nanotechnology and renewable energy

Clean power generation from renewable energy is seen as the solution to the climate impacts of the energy sector. However, there are barriers yet to be overcome to scale up energy production through renewables.

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In the United States, only 9 percent of total energy consumed came from renewable sources in 2011 according to the Institute for Energy Research. In Germany, renewables only account for 12 percent.

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Given the limitations that hinder the growth of renewable energy, “nanotechnology offers, for the first time, tools to develop new industries based on cost-effective and cost-efficient economies, thus seriously contributing to a sustainable economic growth,” according to scientific literature publisher Elsevier.

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Nanotechnology: Bridging the gap?

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Nanotechnology is the engineering of functional systems at an atomic and molecular scale. Generally, it works with materials and structures having at least one dimension sized from 1 to 100 nanometers.

“Its unique capability to fabricate new structures at atomic scale has already produced novel materials and devices with great potential applications in a wide number of fields, such as in medicine, electronics, biomaterials and specifically, energy production,” according to Elsevier.

In addressing global energy concerns, nanotechnology has the potential to significantly slash the impact of energy production, storage and use. While it would still take a long way to establish a sustainable energy system, scientists are looking at a further development of energy nanotechnologies.

According to the ‘‘Roadmap Report Concerning the Use of Nanomaterials in the Energy Sector’’ from the 6th Framework Program, a report funded by the European Commission, nanotechnology presents the most potential in the domain of energy conversion, including solar photovoltaics, hydrogen conversion and thermoelectric devices.

The main challenges now for the application of nanomaterials in the energy sector are the improvement of efficiency, reliability, safety and lifetime, as well as the reduction of costs.

To date, universities, research institutes and even governments are paying attention to the synergy that could be established between nanotechnology and renewable energy.

In Singapore, the Institute for Bioengineering and Nanotechnology was created to work closely on the field.

Recently, the institute has developed a more efficient and longer lasting fuel cell through a compound of gold, copper and platinum nanoparticles.

The researchers found out that replacing the innermost part of the catalyst of the fuel cell with gold and copper alloy, while leaving just the outer layer in platinum, will deliver five times higher activity.

Platinum nanoparticles are often used as catalyst in commercially available fuel cells, since platinum is the only metal that is resistant to extreme acidic condition inside such a cell.

The prevalent use of fuel cells has been deterred by the high cost of platinum and its low stability, said the institute, and the new advanced fuel cell material could help overcome these barriers, providing a less expensive material and much greater stability.

In 2011, U.S. President Barack Obama launched the Advanced Manufacturing Partnership, a national effort by the industry, universities and the federal government that provides more than $500 million in investments in emerging technologies such as information technology, biotechnology and nanotechnology.

The President said these technologies will create high-quality manufacturing jobs and enhance the country’s global competitiveness. They are not just matters of science fiction, because they exist today and “sprang from the imagination of students and scientists and entrepreneurs,” he noted.

In line with this, the Department of Energy also launched an initiative to leverage its existing funds and future budgets, with the initial goal of $120 million to develop novel manufacturing processes and materials that will enable companies to reduce the costs of manufacturing, while generating energy savings.

“Thanks to better nanomaterials, PV solar cells are increasing their efficiency while reducing their manufacturing and electricity production costs at an unprecedented rate. Hydrogen production, storage and transformation into electricity in fuel cells are being benefited from more efficient catalysts for water splitting, better nanostructured materials for higher hydrogen adsorption capacity and cheaper simpler fuel cells,” Elsevier said. (Catherine Dominguez)



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