The majority of the world’s energy comes from fossil fuels – primarily coal, oil, and natural gas. All three were formed on Earth about 360 million years ago during the Carboniferous Period and long before the age of the dinosaurs.

We rely on fossil fuels for much more than gasoline to power our cars. For example, tremendous amounts of oil are required to produce all plastics, all computers and high tech devices. According to the American Chemical Society, it takes 3.5 pounds of fossil fuels to make a single 32 megabyte DRAM computer chip, and the construction of a single desktop computer consumes ten times its weight in fossil fuels. Our food is produced by high-tech, oil-powered industrial methods of agriculture, and in the US each piece of food travels about 1,500 miles before it reaches the grocery store. Pesticides are made from oil, and commercial fertilizers are made from ammonia, which is made from natural gas. Fossil fuels are needed to make many medical devices and supplies such as life-support systems, anesthesia bags, catheters, dishes, drains, gloves, heart valves, needles, syringes, and tubes.

There is a limited supply of fossil fuels and they are nonrenewable. Today, we are using fossil fuels faster than we are finding them. In fact, the Oil Depletion Analysis Center (ODAC) predicts that in the near future the demand for fossil fuels will far exceed the Earth’s supply.

Could nanotechnology provide the answers?
Energy Efficiency

Researchers are exploring ways in which nanotechnology could help us accomplish the following two goals:

  1. Access and use fossil fuels much more efficiently so that we can get more energy out of current reserves.
  2. Develop new ways to generate energy.

One example of processes being developed to use fossil fuels more efficiently is the current research to design zeolite catalysts at the nanoscale.

A zeolite is an inorganic porous material which works as a kind of sieve - allowing some molecules to pass through while excluding or breaking down others. Zeolites can be either natural or synthetic, and new zeolites are still being discovered and invented. In 1960, Charles Plank and Edward Rosinski developed a process to use zeolites to speed up chemical reactions. Plank and Rosinski’s process used zeolites to break down petroleum into gasoline more quickly and efficiently. Today, researchers are working to design zeolite catalysts at the nanoscale. By adjusting the size of the zeolite pores on the nanoscale, they can control the size and shape of molecules that can enter. In the case of gasoline production, this technique could mean that we would get more and cleaner gasoline from every barrel of oil. (US Patent #3,140,249).

New Energy Producers

Researchers around the world are working on the development of new energy sources. What are the alternatives and what role could nanotechnology play? We already generate energy through hydropower (i.e., water). Damns have been built on most of the major waterways. Energy generated by wind turbines could help to lessen some of our dependence on fossil fuels. Although wind turbines are in use today, their energy output is far less than what is needed. Harnessing the sun’s rays to make solar power is another alternative, but with current technology, solar panels could only make a limited impact.

Of these three methods, solar energy holds the most promise. Right now you need silicon wafers to make solar panels, and silicon wafers, like computer chips, require a large amount of fossil fuels for production. However, researchers like Paul Alivisatos at the University of California, Berkeley hope to use nanotechnology to develop nano solar cells that would be energy-intensive and far less expensive to make. Researchers at the University of Toronto are using nanotechnology to develop solar panels capable of harnessing not only the visible light from the sun, but the infrared spectrum as well, thus doubling the energy output. What’s more, these new solar cells could be sprayed on surfaces like paint, making them highly portable. Researchers at Rice University want to take solar energy research even further. They hope to someday build a solar power station in space capable of catching the solar energy that bypasses the Earth every day and providing about nine times the efficiency of solar cells on Earth.

In these and other energy-producing advances, nanotechnology will play a critical role.

More New Energy Producers

The first fuel cell (or "gas battery") was invented by William Robert Grove in 1839, only 39 years after Alessandro Volta invented the battery (the voltaic cell). Unfortunately, the materials that Grove used to make his fuel cell were unstable and the technology was unusable. One hundred and twenty years later, NASA revived fuel cell technology with new materials and used it on manned space flights. These new fuel cells were quiet, reliable, and clean, and produced water as a by-product. It was an ideal scenario. The fuel cells produced both power and drinking water for the astronauts.

Today, there are a number of different types of fuels cells under development. But there are still some challenges with this technology – challenges that nanotechnology may be able to address.

Researchers around the world are using nanotechnology to make new fuel cell membranes that would substantially increase the energy output. Nanomaterials are being developed to take the place of the highly expensive platinum parts in current fuel cells, and nanotubes hold promise as hydrogen delivery systems.  All of this research could someday pave the way for better energy solutions.