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In Development

Energy And The Environment

Today, the need for energy is critical. As the world population grows and more countries become industrialized, energy requirements will increase. Meanwhile, the United States relies heavily on fossil fuels, a diminishing resource. Nanotechnology could transform the outlook on energy by making possible more efficient usage of existing resources, while advancing alternative energy sources such as solar and fuel cells.

Oil must be processed and refined into a usable product. This is done through chemical reactions accelerated by compounds called catalysts. The use of nanoparticles as catalysts could improve the effectiveness of the reaction and reduce the amount of energy necessary to perform the reaction. A nanocatalyst can, for example, improve the process of refining oil into gasoline. Even more radical is the use of nanocatalysts in turning coal into liquid fuel. They could also be used in the industrial production of chemicals, making the process more energy efficient and environmentally friendly.

Nanotechnology could help reduce energy consumption in our daily lives. Currently under development by a number of companies, batteries improved by nanotechnology would be smaller, cheaper, and more powerful. Rechargeable batteries, especially lithium-ion batteries, would hold their charge longer and take less time to recharge. Lightbulbs incorporating quantum dots would save energy by converting electricity into light with very little power wasted. In conventional lightbulbs, about 90 percent of their electricity usage is lost through generation of heat.

However, nanotechnology's greatest promise in the energy industry is in alternative energy sources. Solar cells are presently too expensive for most companies or individuals to utilize on a large scale. They are costly to manufacture and install. Current manufacturing techniques require expensive equipment and manipulation of the solar cell at high temperatures. The solar cell of the future will likely be made of plastic embedded with nanoparticles. Experimental nanotech solar cells can be printed out in sheets by an ink-jet printer. Someday, solar cells may be made from fabric or encased in the glass of windowpanes.

Hydrogen fuel cells could provide a pollution-free source of energy. These have the potential to fuel cars or generate power in a building. Functional fuel cells have already been developed and even used in spacecraft, but the disadvantages of bringing the technology down to Earth lie in handling the fuel, hydrogen gas. Nanotechnology might someday contribute to energy-efficient hydrogen gas production and compact storage.

These applications indirectly benefit the environment through energy conservation, but nanotechnology also has the potential to help clean up our air and water. In factories, air filters studded with nanocrystals could reduce emissions of pollutants such as carbon dioxide and mercury. Similarly, water filters made of carbon nanotubes or nanofibers could purify water of viruses and microbes, providing safe drinking water in areas with a short supply of it. On a larger scale, nanoparticles could be pumped into contaminated water sources, where they would neutralize harmful chemicals.

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