Nanotech and Middle East Revolution

Our energy independence is nanotechnology-powered.

First we saw events in the Middle East on television. Now we're seeing them closer to home at the gas pump. Next we'll see the ripple effect in all transportation costs, then business vitality and, finally, the consumer economy.

Once again, we're reminded that energy supplies are finite and most are not under our control. Countries need to take charge of preserving and protecting their energy independence. As oil settles at prices well over $100 per barrel, we need to explore every energy option we have. You know I'm a believer in renewable resources. We've often talked about enabling nanotechnologies here -- from solar and wind power to new materials that boost energy-efficiency.

Still, the best expert estimates put us decades away from ending our dependence on fossil fuels -- oil, coal and natural gas. So let's talk about the elephant in the room. Are there ways nanotechnology can help develop cost-effective and environmentally sound ways to find, mine, pump, and otherwise extract resources, and then use them with a highest possible degree of eco-conscious efficiency? Absolutely.

Let's start with oil. According to one source, we leave 60-70% of discovered oil in the ground. Part of the problem is that oil flows through nano-sized pores in the ground, making it hard to find, hard to pump. Nano-enabled sensors will not only help drillers find the oil, but by knowing more about the pore size of surrounding earth and rock, they can choose the best extraction methods. Efforts range from nanosensors that can provide temperature, pressure and mapping data to simpler "nano-reporters", nanoscale chemicals that can be pumped into a hole and then identified as they surface, thereby characterizing the oil reserve and volume.

Another recent technology for extracting oil and gas is called hydraulic fracturing, and nanotechnology can improve its efficiency, too. How does it work? Oil or gas trapped in highly branched reservoirs is difficult and expensive to extract. "Proppants" are used to, as the name suggests, prop the tiny areas open. Current proppants are strong, but heavy. They don't transport well, which means they're inefficient and expensive to put in place and reclaim from the environment. New nano-proppants are both super-strong and super-light so they're easier to insert and clean up, while aiding maximum production.

Nanotechnology can also aid in extracting oil from oil sands deposits. Our northern neighbor Canada boasts as much as 173 billion barrels of economically viable oil -- a reserve second only to Saudi Arabia. The problem? It requires large amounts of water and the extraction process creates greenhouse gases. Working with a U.S. company, a Canadian research program is developing an innovative filtering system based on nanomaterials. This nano-enabled solution is orders of magnitude better than current technology at capturing pollutants from gases and water.

Of course, Middle East oil is a permanent part of the global energy landscape. The current unrest will resolve -- hopefully soon -- and all will be back to normal for the producers and customers of crude. Still, it's in the best interest of any country to take control of their energy stores. Even Jordan recently announced plans to start exploration of oil shales. And note this: they also formed a partnership with a U.S. corporation for a nanotechnology center researching energy and water.

The bottom line -- or more accurately, the bottom gallon -- is this: every energy option must be vigorously pursued as though our future depends on it -- because it does. And I believe nanotechnology will prove to be our most important resource.

Scott E. Rickert is chief executive of Nanofilm, Ltd., located in Valley View, Ohio.

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