Taking the NanoPulse -- Plug in. Turn on. Green up.

Aug. 25, 2008
Could nanotechnology be the ultimate renewable energy?

Wow. That's the only word to describe the innovations and insights I saw at the Nano Renewable Energy Summit last month in Denver. Entrepreneurs, researchers, business and government energy cognoscenti gathered for three days of high-powered talks on nanotechnology's role green energy. Here's the good news: nanotechnology is making possible breakthroughs that were just science fiction even a year ago. As the potential of nanomaterials, nano-chemistry and nano-engineering are being realized, they're going to form the strong backbone of our energy solutions.

Let's start with technologies that reduce energy use or help us clean up current energy sources. I see those as the big success stories of the next five to ten years. There are companies at or near the commercialization stage for a powerhouse store of nanotechnologies. Let's start with nanocoatings that control thermal transfer through architectural and transportation glass. That should help shut the window on this fact from the U.S. Department of Energy: one-fourth of all the energy used for space heating and cooling goes out the window, with a pricetag of about $20 billion. The next step is a nano-enabled heat-controlling skin for building walls that add significant insulation.

Nanotechnology is bringing conservation to our gas-guzzling vehicles, too. How about nano-additives that squeeze 10% more mileage out of a gallon of diesel fuel? Or nano-catalysts that reduce emissions? Nanotechnology is even helping improve fiber optic sensors that increase the efficiency of power generation.

Renewable alternative energy sources were, of course, the other hot topic. While the horizon looks to be 5 to 10 years out, the possibilities are truly astounding. Advances in solar cells are at the top of the list. Carbon nanotubes can be printed onto surfaces with an inkjet printer to make incredibly efficient conductive films for solar cells. How about nano-enabled holographic technology that focuses the most useful wavelengths of sunlight for more efficient solar generation? I even saw a company who's technology focuses on harvesting heat "waste" -- the lost energy from forging steel, processing glass, and even generating electricity.

Some of the most exciting breakthroughs are in battery technology. Let's start with the big stuff. Storage is a key for everything from solar power generation to electric cars, and companies have made great strides. I saw durable, reliable, safe nano-solutions that could double or triple the power of existing batteries. Nano-enabled batteries are also moving into smaller applications, too, providing a high-powered solution for everything from cell phones to remote sensors.

In just three days, this incredible forum opened up a whole new -- and greener -- world of possibilities. Let me quote Debbie Woodward, from the Colorado Nanotechnology Allliance, which co-hosted the event with the NanoBusiness Alliance. "The inaugural Nanotechnology Renewable Energy Summit was a huge success in Colorado. More than 250 renowned companies, researchers, universities, scientists, and investors from eight countries attended to discuss how nanotechnology will provide renewable energy solutions worldwide."

And let me finish up with one other lean and green thought. Renewable energy is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to nanotechnology's role in environmental stewarship. This tiny technology is transforming the concept of environmentalism in ways you may not have considered. There are nanocoatings for everything from tableware to displays that help these products last longer, eliminating the waste of a throwaway culture. Nano-additives are at work cleaning up fouled water supplies. Nano-packaging and additives preserve food more effectively. Easy-clean nano-layers reduce water use and eliminate harsh chemical use.

Of course, there's much more to do on so many fronts. But when it comes to environmentally sound, renewable energy development, I believe nanotechnology is a "convenient truth" we can rely on.

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

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