Tuesday, September 22, 2009

The Nano Entrepreneur -- Part III

Nanotechnology and Green Energy

I have this feeling that the biggest obstacle to energy independence is apathy. Right now we have -- or could soon have -- the technology to power the world with wind, sun, water and geothermal applications. But we can't seem to push clean energy out of our labs and onto the landscape. Energy companies seem slow to create a new business model that'll generate profits as they transition from black to green. We should be clamoring for planet-friendly power. Writing congress. Carrying signs. Protesting the slow, sometimes indiscernible progress. Our survival rests in the balance -- and that's not an overly dramatic statement. We have big problems. Many of the solutions will come from the infinitesimal world of nanotechnology. And we're dependent on entrepreneurs to do what most of us can't -- they are by nature anything but apathetic.

Chances are they watched Michael J. Fox in Back to the Future -- particularly the scene in which he returns from his trip 30 years into the future, casually picks a banana peel out of the garbage and slips it into his Delorian's microbial fuel cell chamber, demonstrating that organic matter, such as that in agricultural and municipal waste, is a tremendously rich source of energy. In fact, as much as 80 percent of municipal waste is organic, and right now -- not 30 years ahead -- we can use microbial fuel cells to extract energy from biomass and produce electrical power. The problem is efficiency -- inefficient electron transfer yields low currents. However, by using semiconducting nanoparticles to amplify electron transfer, researchers can increase output significantly. Labs at the University of Michigan are creating a new generation of microbial fuel cells that integrate nanotechnology and optimized fuel-cell designs to increase power. Entrepreneurs are launching companies such as Trophos Energy on the bet that microbial fuel cell technology will be a hot item in the green revolution.

Applied Materials is another mover in the nano-energy field. They use a thin polymer film with nanoscale semiconductor materials and single-walled carbon nanotubes to produce a polymer solar cell that maximizes energy conversion. (It's worth noting that, although consumer demand for solar power has increased in the United States, it hasn't been significant enough for Applied Materials -- the world's biggest solar equipment manufacturer -- to build their cells in America. So, right now, according to The New York Times, "federal and state subsidies for installing solar systems are largely paying for the cost of importing solar panels made in China, by Chinese workers, using hi-tech manufacturing equipment invented in America.")

Nanosolar has been using a high-speed process to produce next-generation thin-film solar cells. The printing technique is two orders of magnitude more capital-efficient than a high-vacuum process. The new process works as well in production as it does in the lab.

The number of nano-energy startups and research programs grows and grows, but we have yet to see a significant dent in the carbon-energy dependence that hangs over us like a cloud. It's time for me to stop living as a partner with my apathy. And if I can kick apathy out of the house, so can you. Time to make some noise. Ask hard questions. Write our representatives in Washington. Carry signs. Raise a little consciousness. And give a special helping hand to those green-eyed entrepreneurs who have the know-how but lack support

1 comment:

Dennis at Wet Jet Precision said...

I am wondering why all the research is in the fuel cell type of technology that creates electricity from hydrogen instead of hydrogen from electricity. I own a waterjet job shop, and we cut fuel cell plates for people all over the U.S. who are creating hydrogen producing fuel cells from electricity. It is the opposite process that all the big automakers are endorsing. Why? Is it a hydrogen storage issue? Most of these entrepreneurs are using one form or other of an alkaline bath to split the gases. One of my customers is using a PEM membrane and is having great success. He has a cell that he has started to market to the trucking industry. This cell produces hydrogen that is used on demand. No storage issue. The big trucks are seeing 20-37% increase in mileage. Trucks with this cell installed that couldn't pass California emissions are now flying right through. The drivers love it because of the additional torque when pulling the hills. Currently, he is in the middle of getting emission and dyno certifications. He found that the people creating the chemical bath type fuel cells had created a huge skepticism in the market. The chemical bath type are fraught with issues and problems. He has a great product with an electronic board to control everything. So be encouraged it is happening.