Paul Holister is a consultant specialising in, among other things,
the commercial and societal impacts of new technologies. He is currently
writing "Nanotechnology and the Future of Energy", to be published
by John Wiley and Sons.
Paul is a Thought Leader in
on Old and New ENERGY
immersed experience of a Do-Tank
April 17 & 18, 2007
Max. 20 Delegates
registration till end
Club of Amsterdam: Paul,
you are currently writing a book about "Nanotechnology and the Future
of Energy". Can you describe how nanotechnology can have an impact
on energy generation, storage, and utilization?
Nanotechnology operates at such a fundamental level that there is very
little of a technological nature that it will not impact. Thus its effects
on energy generation, transmission, storage and consumption are numerous
and diverse. Some will be incremental and some quite possibly revolutionary.
Rather than trying to sketch
the whole landscape, a few examples will hopefully illustrate the variety.
At the mundane end of the
scale you have anti-fouling paints for wave or tidal power, or materials
with a higher tolerance for radiation in nuclear reactors. I did say mundane.
In wind power, the potentially
enormous improvements in strength-to-weight ratio of composite materials
used in blades could pay back surprisingly well because the relationship
of blade length to efficiency is not linear but follows a power law -
though there is much argument about how this pans out in the real world.
At the other extreme of nanotech
impact, you have solar energy. We are children in this area, and the playground
is built on the nanoscale. Almost any development is going to involve
nanotech - an intriguing recent exception being the use of lenses to focus
light on old-fashioned silicon photovoltaics, thus demanding less of this
expensive material. This is one of the areas where nanotech-enabled technology
could well be revolutionary.
But what makes for a revolution
in energy generation? Two things: availability and economics. The fact
that solar energy is so bountiful - enough hits the Earth in a minute
to meet our global requirements for at least a week - makes it potentially
revolutionary; it's just the cost of capturing that energy that has been
standing in the way. Reduce that enough, or increase the cost of the alternatives,
and you have a revolution.
One other energy source could,
I believe, be equally revolutionary. Not fusion, which, despite the dreams
of my youth, I sadly have to relegate to a distant future - not that the
ongoing experiments aren't worthwhile. Geothermal energy, boring as hot
rocks and steam may sound - outside of saunas, that is -, has revolutionary
potential for the same reason as solar - an essentially unlimited supply
of energy untapped only because of economics. The nanotech connection
is not as direct here as with solar - you have tougher materials to cut
drilling costs or thermoelectric tunneling for efficient low-grade heat
conversion - but it only takes the right conjunction of developments and
geothermal power stations will be springing up - or down - all over the
I've only considered here
principal power generation, but this should already give some sense of
the breadth and potential scale of impact. I'd be surprised to find any
reader of this unaware of the excitement surrounding developments in fuel
cell and battery technology. Nanotechnology figures almost without exception
in the cutting edge of both.
But I could go on for ages
answering this question - you could almost make a book out of it ...
How do nanotechnology-based solutions apply particularly,
if at all, to environmental concerns and energy security issues?
From an energy security point of view, nanotech
developments are invariably positive since, at the very least, they can
help save energy - aerogels for better insulation, IR-reflective window
coatings, low-grade heat conversion in cars, etc.. They also assist to
varying degrees in the development of alternatives to the fossil fuels
upon which so many of us are now so dangerously dependant. I've already
mentioned the potential of solar and geothermal energy.
On the environmental front
the answer is not so clear. We live in a world where short-term economics
have an overwhelming influence on decision making.
The good news for those who
worry about things like global warming, is that the increasing cost of
oil - a long-term trend that will not stop, oil being a finite resource
- and the decreasing cost of alternatives such as solar energy, give renewables
an ever more favourable economic position. When you look at the diverse
spread of nanotech-related impacts they are almost always supporting technologies
with an improved environmental profile.
Unfortunately, there is a
rather big exception to this. Nanotechnology has helped greatly improve
the effectiveness of catalysts. Fuel cells and catalytic converters are
among the welcome beneficiaries.
But catalysis is also at
the heart of gas-to-liquid and coal liquefaction technologies that promise
oil independence for those with access to previously uneconomical gas
reserves or to coal reserves. Energy security is a big carrot and it so
happens that two highly-populated countries that rank among the fastest-growing
economies in the world, and thus the fastest-growing energy consumers,
are coal-rich: China and India. North America too is coal-rich.
If such countries can start
to economically run their cars, trucks and buses on diesel made from coal
- which ironically is low-emission compared with normal diesel at the
vehicle end but overall produces more CO2 than oil-based diesel - then
we could be looking at a greenhouse gas nightmare scenario - there is
enough coal in the world to supply our energy needs for hundreds of years.
So, greenhouse nightmare
or an emission-free future? Nanotechnology can enable them both. Barring
a global wave of forward planning unseen in mankind's history, economics
will probably make the decision for us.
What do you expect from a dialogue between "old
and new energy"?
Taking 'old energy' to be the way we have done things since the dawn of
the industrial revolution, i.e. primarily by burning fossil fuels, I think
that the likeliest difference between old and new energy, and the generator
of greatest debate, will be systemic rather than one particular technology
or another. The question of when and how the transition to new energy
occurs is also intriguing - as the coal liquefaction scenario above shows,
we could in theory be stuck with the old, or pretty similar, for some
time to come.
We have gorged ourselves
for more than a century on the energy equivalent of a free lunch. As we
start to realise that, while there may be such a thing as a free lunch,
it isn't necessarily dinner and breakfast too, we can size up the alternatives,
the most striking thing about which is their diversity.
Only coal and nuclear fission
are potential candidates for maintaining the uniform and monolithic energy
network we have now in the developed world. There are good reasons to
avoid both, if we can - some would argue that we cannot.
All the alternatives involve
a mix of technologies and energy sources, with energy not always being
produced where you want and when you want, thus producing a far more complex
system than we have now. The phrase 'intelligent grid' is often held up
as an example of how this complexity will operate, with buying, selling
and saving of energy being possible at many scales. I'd rather do away
with the 'grid' word altogether because it evokes the electricity grid
that we in the developed world generally take for granted but which exists
only as a consequence of our historical dependence on fossil fuels, and
is grossly inefficient. In a mixed-energy-source scenario, the traditional
grid would be challenged by localised generation, the form of which would
vary according to location - Saudi: sunshine; Greenland: geothermal.
The gridless or localised
grid scenario begs the question of how large amounts of energy will be
transferred from one place to another, which will no doubt continue to
be either required or an economically viable activity. The classic answer
is hydrogen, but it is unfortunately a lousy way to transport energy,
thanks largely to its volatility. In theory, the development of cheap,
high-load superconducting cables - perhaps made of carbon nanotubes -
might keep the old-fashioned grid alive but it seems to me that an efficient
means of converting whatever energy source happens to be available to
you into a fuel that is liquid, or close to it, at room temperature -
e.g. methanol -, combined with a fuel cell technology to make good use
of it, would be a hard system to beat when it comes to storage and transmission.
As I write, there are at
least a few scientists around the world trying to figure out ways to outdo
Mother Nature in turning sunlight into a compact, transportable energy
source. All of which happens, of course, on the nanoscale.
Thank you Paul!
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