Research: Energy and Nanotechnology
Rice Energy Program
In May 2003 a major initiative began to research the role nanotechnology will play in the development of clean, affordable energy, whose supply is sustainable and universally available.
Breakthroughs in nanotechnology open up the possibility of moving beyond our current alternatives for energy supply by introducing technologies that are more efficient, inexpensive, and environmentally sound. A solution to the global energy problem will require revolutionary new technology, as well as conservation and evolutionary improvements in existing technologies. Efficiencies in the use of energy will come from many advances, but particularly from revolutionary new materials that are inexpensive, environmentally safe, and both stronger and lighter than steel. Transmission and storage of energy, particularly electrical power and hydrogen, is a major societal need, and holds the most promise in solutions with new nanotechnologies. It is in this area that we believe nanoscience can bring the most immediate benefits, with nanotubing and other nano-based materials creating new opportunities to transport electricity efficiently and at lower cost over very long distances.
The most dramatic, real and concrete long term benefit in energy research would be if the U.S. science community could deliver a breakthrough fuel system that could both allow society to avoid reliance on volatile Middle East oil supply while at the same time avoiding harmful emissions or other environmental impacts during the energy conversion process. Perhaps the greatest challenge, but most dynamic change toward these goals, would be if nanoscience could render the widespread collection, conversion and transmission of solar energy viable and affordable.
A major conclave, "Energy and Nanotechnology: Strategy for the Future", was held at Rice University to address the potential of nanotechnology to help solve the challenge of developing less expensive, more efficient and environmentally sound energy supplies. As part of the Rice Energy Program initiative on Energy Policy and Nanotechnology, the Baker Institute Energy Forum hosted a series of workshops investigating the potential for nanoscience to make contributions to potentially revolutionary energy breakthroughs in the areas of "Prospects for Solar Energy in the 21st Century" and "The Grid and Storage". The workshops brought together nanoscientists from around the country, solar, electricity and hydrogen scientists, government policy makers, industry participants from energy companies, solar companies, electricity companies and hydrogen companies, and Rice researchers from the Baker Institute, the Richard E. Smalley Institute for Nanoscale Science and Technology, the Economics Department, the Physics Department and EESI. The goal was to gather more data and build a team to create an expanded research program.
The primary goal of the Baker Institute “Energy and Nanotechnology” initiative is to help broaden public understanding of how scientific disciplines such as nano-science can appear esoteric with little bearing on people’s lives, but, in reality, technologies developed from these fields can have a direct impact, including the potential to help solve the challenge of developing cheaper, more efficient and environmentally sound energy supplies.
A series of Baker Institute “Energy and Nanotechnology” workshops are designed to educate leading nano-scientists about the great technical challenges facing the energy industry today. By bringing together business leaders, policy-makers, media and the scientific community, these workshops will share knowledge already gained from previous studies and gatherings. Rice University is taking the lead in creating a dialogue between nano-science and energy technology experts to share ideas about potential applications from their arena that could lead to resolving both national and international energy predicaments.
In the light of repeating oil supply disruptions and emerging environmental pressures, the international energy industry and scientific community are looking to non-conventional solutions to confront our ongoing energy security concerns. Energy is not just a critical national concern to the United States but also a global one. Among the most important technical challenges facing the world in the 21st century is providing clean, affordable energy, whose supply is sustainable and universally available. A solution to the global energy problem will require revolutionary new technology, as well as conservation and evolutionary improvements in existing technologies.
Advancement of nano-technology solutions can be an integral component to solving the energy problem. Breakthroughs in nano-technology open up the possibility of moving beyond our current alternatives for energy supply by introducing technologies that are more efficient, inexpensive, and environmentally sound. The benefits of such technology will not be confined to the United States or the developed world; indeed, its impact will be greatest for the 1.4 billion individuals around the globe, most desperately poor, who lack access to electricity and other vital energy services.
Close to one-third of the world’s population lives today without modern energy services, perpetuating poverty and human suffering that leads to desperation and regional instability and conflict.
Maintaining plentiful oil and gas supplies needed to meet rising world energy demand will become more challenging as time goes on, given the natural peak expected in fossil fuels in this century. Natural gas will provide a bridge, but North American sources are very limited, meaning America could become dependent on Middle Eastern natural gas imports as well as oil imports in the coming years. As the U.S. faces depleting affordable world supplies and greater reliance on Middle East resources by 2030 and beyond, it will be imperative to have prepared for new energy sources. Environmental problems predicted for the middle of the century also dictate that we develop new, cleaner sources of energy. However, to find an answer to this energy supply dilemma, we must prepare well in advance.
What is needed is a vast effort, capable of providing a new “non-traditional” source of energy, which is at least twice the size of all worldwide energy consumed today and have it readily available by the middle of the 21st century. This source must not rely on oil and natural gas as the initial component (as current plans for using hydrogen as an energy carrier assume). It must be clean, and, most importantly, it must be cheap. It must provide the basis for sustained economic prosperity for 10 billion people.
Current technology simply cannot do this. We need stunning new discoveries in underlying core science and engineering base to enable an answer.
Even once this enabling core work is done, it will take trillions of dollars of investment, and several decades to implement this new energy technology on an adequate scale. We must get started now, before our S&T workforce of American citizens declines much further. While the costs sound high, these same trillions of dollars of investment in traditional energy sources would be needed over the same time period to refurbish aging infrastructure and to meet new demand. The International Energy Agency projects that the total investment requirement for energy supply infrastructure will top $16 trillion between 2001- 2030.
A national research program is needed in America that will fund frontier research in the physical sciences and engineering, toward enabling breakthroughs that will permit a transformation in the energy industry worldwide. Perhaps equally importantly, this new Program will inspire a new generation of young American men and women to enter careers in the physical sciences and engineering, much like they did in the Sputnik era of the 1960s.
Research can be aimed at revolutionary advances in solar power, wind, clean coal, hydrogen, fusion, new generation fission reactors, fuel cells, batteries, hydrogen production, storage, and transport, and a new electrical energy grid, which can tie all these power sources together. It will enable new schemes for high efficiency, long distance power transmission, and offer local energy storage technologies that can give each home or business an uninterrupted power supply, by providing the ability to offer customers independence from the power grid for periods of 12-24 hours and reducing our need for expensive standby power to handle peak usage. This will ultimately reduce our vulnerability to terrorism.
This Baker Institute Energy Forum study is in conjunction with the Rice Alliance for Entrepreneurship and Technology, the Center for Nanoscale Science and Technology (CNST) (now called the Richard E. Smalley Institute for Nanoscale Science and Technology), and the Energy & Environmental Systems Institute (EESI).