Andrei Fedorov from the Georgia Institute of Technology (US) and Mildred Dresselhaus from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (US) and their colleagues explain how nanotechnology might solve our energy crisis
The global demand for energy is set to double, if not triple, by the end of the 21st century - harnessing that energy is one of the most pressing global challenges we face. More than 80 per cent of our energy comes from the carbon dioxide-emitting fossil fuel trio of coal, oil and natural gas. Only a small fraction is provided by renewable sources, such as geothermal, wind and solar power, and biofuels. But with the current explosion in economic development and population growth, particularly in China and India, to meet the rising energy demand we would need to increase fossil fuel use to levels that would pose a grave environmental threat. We acknowledge now that a major scientific and societal change is upon us, to convert from a fossil fuel-based energy economy to a sustainable one.
Nanoscale design is critical to the next generation of energy carriers
Creating a sustainable energy generation, storage and distribution infrastructure requires massive global investments in research and development. Putting in place a new energy generation, storage and distribution system quickly and on such a large scale will require major scientific discoveries and engineering developments in the next 10-20 years. This is shorter than customary for discovery to technology transitions. These new technologies must provide sufficient energy with minimal environmental impact, and little economic and societal disruption. Solar, thermal and electrochemical energy conversion, storage and conservation technologies are being investigated. At the heart of this revolution in energy technologies are nanoscale science and technology.
Several aspects of nanoscale design are critical to the development of the next generation of energy technologies. For example, studying the manipulation and control of the fundamental energy carriers - photons, excitons, electrons/holes, phonons, and molecules/ions - emphasises the importance of these nanoscale interactions. These studies should enable us to make the greatest impact across the entire spectrum of nanotechnology-enabled energy conversion, storage, and conservation technologies.
"Studying the manipulation and control of the fundamental energy carriers should enable us to make the greatest impact across the entire spectrum of nanotechnology-enabled energy conversion, storage, and conservation technologies."
To see the bigger picture, we must put in place a strategy where mid-term and long-term goals can evolve but must be periodically revisited and re-calibrated based on near-term advances, successes and failures. In the near-term (2-5 years), energy conservation technologies will have a major impact. These include advanced thermal insulation materials for buildings and industrial processes, waste heat conversion into electrical power using thermoelectrics, and technologies such as solid-state lighting based on light-emitting diodes. In the mid-term (5-10 years), hydrogen fuel and devices such as fuel cells will reach the point of becoming competitive in the energy market, especially for transport. The long-term (>10 years) future will rely on solar fuels as truly sustainable energy carriers. These would, with solar energy, use only renewable feedstocks, such as water and carbon dioxide, to produce synthetic liquid fuels.
Nanotechnology research will play a critical part in these developments and will make the systems more efficient and cost effective. The strategic recommendations discussed above should provide a focus for future research activities. What is also clear, though, is that in addition to these breakthroughs, science and engineering research communities, working with industry and policy makers, will have to educate the next generation's workforce and the general public to preserve our planet's environment for future generations.
Link to journal article