How nanotechnology is reshaping the energy industry
One-billionth of a meter, that’s the size of a nanometer (nm). To put it in perspective, a piece of paper is about 100,000 nanometers thick. Nanotechnology operates at even smaller levels, manipulating atoms as small as 0.1 nm and, in doing so, creates new materials that have different chemical reactions and a more controlled reaction to light, and are stronger and lighter.
To date, nanotechnology has been applied in the field of medicine to deliver drugs to sick bodies more quickly and more precisely, as well as in the clothing industry to create fabrics that are waterproof and resistant to UV rays, stains, and more. However, some of the most exciting developments could be in energy.
Graphene and Solar Power
While humans have long dreamt about harnessing the power of the sun to satisfy our appetite for energy, thus far solar panels have been a sadly inefficient means of producing energy. The majority of solar cells used today rely on silicon crystals to convert sunlight into electricity. These silicon-based cells are theoretically only able to produce a maximum efficiency of 29 percent, meaning the vast majority of energy that could be obtained is lost.
Thanks to nanomaterials and nanotechnology, a better way has been found. Graphene is a nanomaterial composed of a single layer of carbon atoms arranged in a hexagonal lattice. Despite being only one atom thick, graphene is stronger than steel and has proven to have unique light absorption capabilities. It is also an outstanding conductor of electricity and heat. Such qualities have not only earned graphene the moniker of “wonder material,” they also have made it ideal for use in solar panels.
California solar company Nanotech Engineering has created solar panels made from layered sheets of graphene topped by a “carbon nanotube forest.” These nano panels are “the size of a FedEx envelope” and can convert sunlight into electricity much faster than silicon-based solar cells. More impressively, the company claims its panels are 92 percent efficient, driving the cost per Watt of Nanotech panels down significantly.
NASA has been putting carbon nanotubes to use for years. In fact, in 2011, the agency developed a “super-black material” that absorbs 99 percent of the light that shines on it — across the spectrum from ultraviolet to far-infrared. Used in space, the material can absorb stray light and allow scientists to more accurately measure distant objects.
Carbon nanotubes could prove to have further use in space as materials for building rockets — lightweight rockets and payloads lead to lower costs and easier space travel. Currently, DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) is holding the Launch Challenge, a multimillion dollar competition that aims to cut launch preparation time from several months to a few days. One of the competitors, Pythom Space, will be pioneering the use of carbon nanotubes in rocket structure.
Oil and Natural Gas
Increasingly, those in the oil and natural gas industry are employing nanotechnology to enhance their exploration and production needs. The unique properties of nanomaterials allow them to function at higher pressures and temperatures than standard materials. This is useful in the exploration stages as well as in the drilling or fracking stages.
During exploration, nanoparticles are used to collect information on the characteristics of the reservoir by extracting oil for testing or using unique imaging techniques that show the structures of pores when fracking. The information gathered gives oil and gas companies a better idea of the mechanisms needed for recovery.
When it comes time for drilling or hydraulic fracking, nanotechnology is again of great use thanks to the effect it can have on the viscosity of liquids. When drilling for oil, nanoparticles can lower the viscosity of mud to prevent it sticking to the walls of the wellbore, causing extraction to require more force. On the other hand, in hydraulic fracking, the fracking liquid’s viscosity can be increased, making it more efficient at fracturing rock. Additionally, nanomaterials, such as AtomOil™ from NanoMech, are made to perform under extreme pressure and temperatures and provide increased reliability and lifespan to critical machinery.
Enhanced oil recovery (EOR) is the third stage of oil recovery, which can lead to the recovery of as much as 75 percent of a well. Nanoparticles can reduce viscosity in the oil, allowing it to flow more freely and improve recoverability. Similarly, magnetic nanofluids can be introduced into a well in the third stage in another effort to reduce viscosity.
Once natural gas has been recovered through hydraulic fracturing, nanoparticles can assist in the efficient refinery of compressed gas. Such particles can be used to separate streams of gas and remove impurities that otherwise might go undetected.
Nanotech to the Rescue
Aside from helping to transform existing energy industries, nanotechnology has a lot of promise for breakthroughs in other fields as well as the development of new businesses. Ajayan Vinu, the director of the University of Newcastle’s Global Innovative Centre for Advanced Nanomaterials (GICAN), believes that this tech could be a sort of panacea that provides clean energy and solves global warming — among other lofty accomplishments.
Vinu and his team of researchers are working to develop a device that can capture carbon dioxide and turn it into clean fuel by using water and sunlight combined with nanoporous carbon nitrate, which Vinu discovered. In doing so, he hopes to usher in a new future for the conversion and storage of energy by coupling the material with batteries and solar cells.
The unique ability of nanoporous carbon nitrate to trap carbon dioxide could prove of immense value in cleaning the air of greenhouse gases and reducing soil degradation, thus decreasing the effects of climate change.
While there is still much to be done to lower the costs of nanotechnology and determine the exact effect of introducing new materials and particles into the environment, one cannot deny the promise it holds for the energy industry and beyond.