Nanotechnology could ease energy quandary

By SCOTT R. BURNELL, UPI Science News  |  Sept. 9, 2002 at 5:28 PM
share with facebook
share with twitter

HOUSTON, Sept. 9 (UPI) -- If the scientific community applies nanotechnology research to the problems of energy efficiency and supply, many of society's challenges might be solved along the way, researchers said Monday.

Nanotechnology, the science of manipulating matter at the atomic or molecular level, offers many opportunities to both increase energy production and reduce its use, said Wade Adams, director of the Center for Nanoscale Science and Technology at Rice University. Abundant, easily obtained energy would make it easier to provide food and water worldwide, and even could reduce the possibility of international conflict, Wade told the NanoTech 2002 conference.

"Let's put an extra billion dollars (per year) in the Department of Energy's budget for its Basic Energy Sciences Office, to work on (nanotech) approaches to fundamental barriers to solving the energy problem," Wade said. "We need to get the leadership of this country to stand up and say we're going to mount an exercise that matches the Manhattan Project (to build the first atomic bomb) or the Apollo program (to send astronauts to the moon)."

The energy usage arena could realize the first benefits of this work through applications such as nanostructures that emit light, Wade told United Press International. These devices already produce colored light, but creating inexpensive white-light versions could cut lighting-related electricity use by a factor of 10, he said.

Nanoscience also holds promise in the production arena, for instance with solar cells that transform sunlight into electric current. Nanotech's promise of building structures atom by atom could lead to more efficient, less expensive photo-voltaic cells, bringing solar power into the mainstream in time to help replace the planet's dwindling fossil-fuel reserves, Wade said. Lawmakers should push the suggested research effort to about $10 billion per year by the end of the decade, he said.

Energy applications would be a great focus point for ongoing nanotech study, said James Von Ehr, president of Zyvex, a Richardson, Texas, company exploring methods of assembling devices one molecule at a time. One obstacle to such an effort, he said, is most nanotech companies are run by professors, not business managers who can bring promising products to fruition.

"As long they're managing a 'science project' -- one that doesn't have customers or a real clear schedule, it's real hard to structure an incentive program that makes sense to (experienced businesspeople) and the company," Von Ehr told the conference.

Another challenge to expanding nanoscience's reach is an unclear patent climate, Von Ehr said. Companies attempting to secure rights to broadly defined manufacturing methods and other nanotech applications could set up a "patent minefield" similar to the problems seen during the dot-com explosion, where some companies even tried to claim rights to abstract ideas, he said.

Properly handled, however, nanoscience's study of atomic- and molecular-level properties could speed up biotechnology discoveries that currently rely on time-consuming experimentation, said James Murday, head of the Naval Research Laboratory's Chemical Division and a key member of the National Nanotechnology Initiative, currently being managed by the National Science Foundation.

The key to such advances is gaining control over matter's tendency to self-assemble into given structures, Murday told attendees. Failure to do so would limit nanotech to simple evolutionary changes instead of revolutionary discoveries, he said.

NanoTech 2002, co-hosted by the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics and the Center for NanoSpace Technologies, will conclude with a workshop where participants will address several application areas, including energy, and try to identify cost-effective nanotech alternatives to current applications.

Related UPI Stories
Trending Stories