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