Science's Impact on Nanotechnology and the Energy Industry

10 MINS READJan 15, 2014 | 11:01 GMT
Nanotechnology and its potential to spur breakthroughs in energy storage

An advanced microscope allows the examination of items on a nano scale.

(Kristian Molhave/Wikimedia)

The potential of science to advance technology — and therefore empower those who wield it — has been a constant throughout history, much like the geographical constraints that shape the actions and attitudes of nations. Select technologies, such as the development of motorized transport, have changed the relationship between humans and their immediate surroundings. The field of nanotechnology is one such area that has the potential to dramatically alter the ways in which people and organizations interact with their environment.

Advancements in basic science allow for a better understanding of key processes, providing a solid foundation on which to develop and build new technologies. For manufactured systems that exploit chemical reactions, like fuel cells, batteries or solar panels, this foundation starts with an understanding of the mechanism itself — the chemical reaction. By utilizing advancements in imaging technology, it has now become possible to visualize and observe interactions at the atomic level. The implications of this process could revolutionize the sectors of energy generation and storage.The United States' Brookhaven National Laboratory on Jan. 6 announced the successful use of a comprehensive set of imaging techniques, providing the "unprecedented ability to peer into dynamic, real-time reactions" with nanoscale resolution. The power of this methodology was illustrated by studying a reaction responsible for the production of hydrogen in fuel cells. Being able to understand how a chemical reaction works at the atomic level — in realistic operating conditions that might be seen in a commercial environment — has the potential to significantly reduce the research and development time required for new technologies that utilize such reactions.

This imaging capability will be incredibly important for the broader field of nanotechnology and could have serious implications for fuel cell and battery technologies, especially as these fields look more toward nanoscience for their next advancements. Geopolitically, gains in battery technology have widespread implications. From robotics to renewable energy, better battery technology could overcome demographic and energy constraints or allow opposing nations to wage war more efficiently.

Nanotechnology and Imaging

The invention of the first microscope provided a view into and a better understanding of things the human eye could not see. The field of medicine is one that has readily benefitted from improved imaging techniques and continues to do so. Early on in microscopy it was not really possible to look at living tissue with high resolution. Changes and improvements increased the use of such techniques, allowing for better resolution and for visualization without killing the sample. Doing so enabled a better understanding of biological processes and correspondingly more effective targeting for drugs and other medical treatment. Medicine may be the easiest field to see the immediate impact of improvements in microscopy and other imaging technologies, but it is not the only one. Nanotechnology as a modern field may not have been possible without the advances in microscopy seen in the 1980s. Now, another layer of mystery has been removed, as chemical reactions can be visualized at the atomic scale in real time.

Visualizing the Nano Scale
Nanotechnology is simply the science of the very small. To be defined as "nano," the technology must have one dimension (length, width or height) that is between one and one hundred nanometers. A nanometer is one billionth of a meter; for visual perspective, a human hair has 100,000 times the diameter of a carbon nanotube. Nanotechnology encompasses any material or chemical reaction whose properties are dependent on its small size.

The size matters because it can change the inherent chemical and physical properties of the substance. Bonding properties are different, the structural integrity is different and because of this, the properties of the material are different. In a nanostructure, more atoms are exposed to the surface in proportion to the total atoms in the compound. This greater surface area allows for greater reactivity, which has implications for chemical reactions and for energy storage. Other changes concern the ability of a given material's electronic properties. Color, strength and flexibility are also altered when moving from macro- to nanoscale.

Previously, imaging technology had been able to provide information about compounds at very small scales. Visualization of the structure allows scientists to better understand how the material will interact with its surroundings. However, until very recently, scientists had to choose between the high resolution that allowed the nanoscale structures to be seen at the atomic level and observing the reactions in situ (while the reaction is ongoing, in real time). Yet, in the past five years especially, there have been a number of reports of the successful modification of different kinds of advanced microscopy and X-ray spectroscopy, giving scientists the ability to observe select reactions at a nanoscale — in real time.

While it has become possible to make real-time observations with atomic-level resolution, these experiments still have limitations. Often, only one technique is used per study and typically experiments have to be run at very low pressures. Because of this — and despite the fact that researchers were able to observe the experiments in real time and at an atomic scale — the conditions were not necessarily completely illustrative of what would be seen in commercialized technology. If the materials being studied were ever used in commercialized technology, there could be unforeseen interactions with the environment.

The experiments discussed in the Jan. 6 announcement represent a wide range of imaging techniques, each providing a different set of information and doing so at near-ambient pressures. While this still does not mimic the real world exactly, it is closer than before. The closer to real life an experimental setting is, the more applicable it is to eventual technological applications. When previous studies were conducted at low pressures, researchers were not necessarily able to observe possible environmental interactions. Brookhaven National Laboratory is expected to increase its imaging capability by 2015, with improved capabilities for its X-ray photo spectroscopy (one of the imaging techniques used in its recent studies) that will enable the laboratory to take measurements at ambient pressure, coming even closer to duplicating what might be experienced in the real world.

Batteries and Energy Storage

While improvements in these imaging techniques have the potential to advance a wide range of fields in chemistry and related areas, among the most geopolitically significant technologies that could benefit in the future are batteries. Improved battery technology has the potential to impact numerous sectors of society: from the energy and robotics industries to transportation and the military in particular.

In order to better use intermittent renewable energy sources like wind or solar rays, existing storage capabilities need to be significantly improved. Any large-scale storage device would also need to be able to quickly release its contained energy to meet the demands of the electrical grid, something that current batteries are insufficient for if there is a widespread increase in renewable energy. Current technology will need to be improved or alternative technologies must be developed to meet these demands. In terms of large-sized cells for grid storage, battery lifetime, capacity and the speed at which energy can be discharged are key areas for development.

There is a significant demand for improvements to smaller-scale batteries as well. Often the biggest constraint to the size, weight and effectiveness of a piece of portable technology is the battery. As we have become more reliant on personal technology in our everyday lives, so have we become more reliant on the invariances of batteries. Aside from commercial technology, two of the biggest developmental areas for battery usage are in the robotic and military spheres. Robotics could allow for increased productivity while using less manpower, allowing aging populations to continue to grow economically, but are reliant upon quickly expended internal batteries — a robot tethered to a mains supply would be largely impractical.

From a military perspective, small, light, long-lasting batteries are the holy grail. Contemporary soldiers use inordinate amounts of battery-powered equipment: from radios, to night vision devices, electronic countermeasures, thermal weapon sights, laser rangefinders, global positioning systems, guidance and target acquisition systems and so on. The biggest constraint to the practical development of a military exoskeleton is the battery. To power the sorts of batteries used in robotic and military applications, the energy density of the batteries needs to be improved because the battery must be as light as possible if the systems are going to be mobile for extended periods of time.

Many academic endeavors and entrepreneurs are focusing on batteries that employ nanotechnology in order to increase important qualities like energy density, storage capacity and battery lifetime. Because different properties need to be altered for distinct technologies, advancements will not come out of a single homogenous solution — each individual technology will have to go through its own developmental process. Due to an increasing reliance on nanotechnology, the field of battery development stands to benefit greatly from improved observation and understanding of chemical reactions at the nanoscale. Enhanced imaging techniques are essential because they allow for better understanding of all of these solutions and could help reduce development time across the board. Beyond knowing the exact mechanism of the desired reaction, being able to observe any detrimental processes that are interfering with the desired outcome will make it easier to make the necessary adjustments and improvements.

Constraints to Commercialization

An increased understanding of chemical reactivity will not be an instantaneous fix-all to battery development, or to any other technology for that matter. There are still relatively few machines that are able to conduct the types of experiments reported by Brookhaven, although usage can be expected to increase as the technology becomes better accepted. Improved visualization techniques have the potential to significantly reduce the research and development time on the front end of technology development.

The research and development period for any technology is generally profit-negative and for this reason, at least in the United States and Europe, most basic research is conducted in academic laboratories. It can take years, even decades, to bring a laboratory discovery to commercialization. Attracting capital and investors with that kind of time lag is even more difficult. The slow and often difficult transition from academic research to commercialized product is a continuing constraint that nascent technologies must face. Even in the United States and Western Europe, where innovation is encouraged, the transition can be difficult.

In the United States, more professors are starting their own companies when they make promising discoveries, blurring the line between academia and industry. However, funding environments that favor research with obvious real-life applications can threaten the viability of basic research, like the study of reaction mechanisms. Furthermore, in countries like China, state control and government policy has limited basic research funding in favor of immediate development of technologies, making innovative, ground-up developments in new and existing processes more difficult.

Looking to the Future

New imaging techniques will not magically divine the exact chemical combination required to build the perfect battery. However, they will eventually allow researchers to see exactly how chemical reactions are working at the atomic level, and can help in determining how environmental factors are impacting a given system. This will enable researchers to better plan the next evolution of a technology, or deduce solutions to existing problems. This advancement has the potential to increase research efficiency at early stages of development, perhaps reducing the time needed to develop a new capability or system. By reducing research and development time, perhaps by years, emerging technology may be able to attract greater investment, which in turn would speed up development even more.

Ultimately, a new battery, fuel cell or solar panel could be developed years before it would have happened otherwise. Nanotechnology, as a modern field, would not have been possible in the 1980s without improvements in microscopy. The latest breakthroughs in imaging techniques have the potential to further advance applications of nanotechnology at a much faster rate than would otherwise be possible. Advancements in the basic and supporting sciences that contribute to technological progress may not be able to change geography, but they do provide a strong foundation for revolutionary technologies that will shape every aspect of our increasingly engineered and electronic interaction with our environment.


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