Nanotechnology and Energy

Abstract: While the medical applications of the much-ballyhooed science are getting most of the headlines, some experts believe nanotechnology development is crucial to solving the world's near-future energy problems.

Analysis: There's a lot of hype these days about nanotechnology. The news is full of stories about its potential benefits for practically everything, from nipping disease in the bud to heading off aging to creating dust particle-sized computers whose power and scope would far outdistance even today's largest supercomputers. There are myriad other applications envisioned or under development.

But it appears that some of the most realistic, current applications of nanoscience, as it also is called, are taking place in the energy sector.

As we've been told, nanotechnology is the science of precise control of matter at the molecular scale. That's a very small world. A nanometer is one billionth of a meter, or something like 1/75,000th of the width of a human hair. As someone put it recently, a nanometer is to a human hair as a human hair is to the thickest giant redwood tree. However, the scientific community views nanotechnology as taking place at somewhere in the sub-100-nanometer range. But that's still a smaller working universe than anyone imagined even as few as 10 years ago.

Most nanotechnology publicity today points to its potentially miraculous applications in medicine, where biotechnologists and others are developing minuscule "robots" that, when injected into the bloodstream, will attack and subdue life threats such as incipient blood clots or newly created cancer cells before they become a problem. Even nanotechnological solutions to all kinds of neurological disorders, including Alzheimer's and Parkinson's diseases are under development. A related avenue, of course, is potential nanotech applications in genetic engineering, which raises all the moral questions associated with that area of endeavor.

But the remarkable thing about nanotechnology is that at the nanoscale level, scientists can produce new materials that can be imbued precisely, atom for atom, with qualities that make them smaller, yet stronger and even smarter than any ever developed.

Many of the world's major governments, most universities, and a growing number of industrial giants are studying how nanotechnology can be applied to improve life around the world. In this country, President Bush's proposed 2004 budget provides $847 million for the government's multi-agency National Nanotechnology Initiative, a nearly 10 percent increase from the prior year's budget. The total world investment in nanotechnology no doubt already is the equivalent of trillions of U.S. dollars. But such a huge effort creates its own drawbacks, since it's practically impossible for each institution involved to know about what all the others are doing.

In the energy sector, however, various sources describe nanotech efforts being developed now that go across the entire fossil fuel industry spectrum. The following are some examples:

In China, preparations are underway at a refinery at Shenhua in Inner Mongolia for applying nanocatalysts to produce diesel fuel from coal. The $2 billion coal liquefaction project, partially funded by the U.S. Energy Dept., is designed to produce 50,000 to 100,000 barrels per day of oil equivalent at a price in the $20 to $22 per barrel range, beginning in 2005.

Multinational companies like Shell and BP are engaged in developing nanocomposite materials for drilling and production tools, including offshore risers. Such companies also are investigating nanocatalysis for developing custom-made surfactants to help increase reservoir yield during enhanced oil recovery.

ChevronTexaco, while also working on nanotechnological applications for finding and producing oil and gas, also has branched out into materials for other applications. These include the company's recent discovery of a new class of molecular building blocks called higher diamondoids. Found in petroleum itself, the diamondoids possess characteristics custom-fitted for nanotechnology, including rigidity, durability, multiple shapes and sizes, and potential for precise self-assembly. Many of these diamondoids have shapes important to pharmaceutical chemistry, and others can be polymerized to create specialty electronics and other materials.

Scientists at Schlumberger Ltd.'s Cambridge research center in the U.K. are working on self-organizing liquids at the nanoscale level in order to better understand how oil and water can be separated more effectively.

New Jersey-based Engelhard is developing a molecular pipeline gate system that can separate nitrogen from natural gas to create purer methane. The pore size of the gate is said to be 100 times smaller than a nanometer, which allows nitrogen molecules to pass through while diverting the larger methane molecules into the pipeline. The company also is working on nanocatalysts that improve gasoline yields from refining processes.

Some energy experts and scientists believe that without the rapid application of nanotechnology-based solutions to ballooning problems in both energy supply and distribution, the world could face the possibility of a global depression by mid-century. But there's still time, they say.

Earlier this year, speaking before a meeting of the MIT Enterprise Forum of Texas, held at Rice University in Houston, Matthew R. Simmons, chairman and CEO of Simmons and Co. International, said that despite astonishing growth during the 20th century, energy demand today "is still in its infancy." Quoting figures from the 2002 International Energy Agency's (IEA) World Energy Outlook, he pointed out that global total energy needs will soar from some 196 million barrels of oil equivalent (boe) in 2000 to 326 million boe by 2030. Fossil fuels--coal, oil, and natural gas--will comprise some 90 percent of the energy use by source during that period, with all other sources, including nuclear, hydroelectric power, photovoltaics (solar and lunar), and the like supplying only about 10 percent.

But Simmons said the IEA forecast could be conservative, since it assumes a slowdown in world population growth, among other factors, and there is no scientific support for such assumptions. In fact, he said, the possibility is real that a surge in energy use in developing nations, particularly in the Far East, is probably inevitable.

But fossil fuels will have to serve as a 15- to 20-year bridge to any new energy supply phenomenon, he said, including the hydrogen age, and it will tax energy technology to the limit, particularly if the IEA's forecast of a 5-trillion-cubic-foot shortage of natural gas by 2020 proves to be accurate.

Simmons indicated that while his company, a Houston-based investment banking firm, is positioned solidly in the petroleum industry, it is now branching out into financing growth in other areas, including wind energy and marine transportation.

At the same meeting, Nobel Laureate Dr. Richard Smalley, calling energy the "single most important problem facing mankind today," said the solution lies in the physical sciences and engineering. Winner of the 1996 Nobel Prize in chemistry for his work in nanotechnology, Smalley said its successful application to the world's energy needs will provide "a cornucopia" of new technologies and "provide the underpinnings for vast new economic prosperity for the U.S. and the world."

Strong, positive words; however, Smalley said an effort the size of the Apollo Project of the 1960s and 1970s, which put a man on the moon, would be needed to do so. "The problem is huge, but it also is a magnificent opportunity," he added, one that will revolutionize energy, the world's largest industry. He also noted that it will be crucial for more young people to be inspired to enter the physical sciences, much as initiatives like the Apollo Project drew new entrants into aerospace.

Among nanotechnology-based breakthrough technologies needed soon, said Smalley, are the following:

Materials/coatings that will enable much-lowered cost of deep drilling to produce hot dry rock geothermal heat mining.

A 10- to 100-fold drop in the cost of photovoltaics.

A similar drop in fuel cell costs.

Photovoltaic reduction of carbon dioxide to produce a liquid fuel.

High-current cables (superconductors or quantum conductors) with which to rewire the electric power transmission grid.

Light-emitting diodes, and the like, to replace all incandescent and fluorescent lighting.

Nanofiltration membranes for purification/desalination of water on a vast scale at near 100 percent thermodynamic efficiency.

So, while the petroleum industry continues to provide the vast majority of the world's energy, there are those who believe advances in the science of nanotechnology will one day take the place of fossil fuel-based energy. And in their view, the sooner the better.