Posted by Olive Heffernan
Solutions to climate change could come in extremely small sizes, according to a report released last week by the UK Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA). “Environmentally Beneficial Nanotechnologies: Barriers and Opportunities” explores the application of nanoscience in five key areas that could reduce greenhouse gas emissions, namely: insulation, photovoltaics, electricity storage, engine efficiency and the hydrogen economy.
Nanotechnology is a hugely exciting, if relatively young, branch of science with seemingly limitless possibilities. What scientists are discovering is that everyday materials, at very small sizes of one or several nanometers (a nanometer is equivalent to one billionth of a metre), can behave in completely out of ordinary and rather strange ways. This knowledge is resulting in an explosion of nanotechnology-enabled products entering the market, with the number expected to grow dramatically from $30 billion in 2005 to $2.6 trillion by 2014.
The report suggests that applying nanotechnology in these five key areas could contribute to reducing greenhouse gas emissions by up to 2 % in the short term and up to 20 % by 2050 with similar reductions in air pollution.
In the short term, nanotechnology has the potential to improve fuel efficiency and eliminate CO2 emissions from transport, concludes the report. Adding nanoparticles as a fuel additive to diesel engines could reduce emissions by 2.1 million tones with little infrastructural change. Nanomaterials could improve the efficiency of fuels cells, and their incorporation into batteries and supercapacitators could reduce the charge time for electric cars. In the longer term, the report says that nanotechnology could play a key role in developing renewable hydrogen production. A hydrogen economy is estimated to be 40 years away from potential universal deployment, but nanotech developments could be crucial to achieving efficient hydrogen storage, which is thought to be the largest barrier to wide scale use.
Nanotech innovations could also provide a solution to reducing cost and increasing efficiency of solar cells. The report says this is unlikely to result in significant GHG emission reduction in the UK, where there is relatively little sun, but could be of significance to reducing global emissions. Jonathan Kohler at the Department of Land Economy, University of Cambridge, however, believes that photovoltaics can have a significant output even in British climatic conditions. If the cost was reduced through advances in nanotechnology, we could see the large scale application of photovoltaics in the UK in the next twenty years, he says. A nanotech application with clear benefits for a country like the UK where 50% of energy demand is domestic would be the development of effective insulation for solid walled buildings.
As a branch of science in its infancy, significant peer-reviewed research in this area is yet to come – as a result the latest IPCC WGIII report on mitigating climate change doesn’t consider nanotech solutions to climate change. Aside from the funding and research required to develop these concepts, there are specific concerns that need to be addressed such as the potential toxicity of newly developed materials and the need to allay public fears that the materials could behave both strangely…and unpredictably.
This area of science looks set to offer some interesting green applications in the future. To keep on track of the latest research developments in nanotechnology, check out Nature Nanotechnology.