PALO ALTO, Calif. At a symposium on energy and nanotechnology here at the Stanford Campus Ted Marston, chief technology officer for the Electric Power Research Institute, called for a total revision of the continental power grid based on a number of sweeping changes.
Marston said that the transformations would benefit some greatly from nanotechnology. In particular he singled out nano-based sensors. "Everthing we want to do is based on having the right sensors affordable and in place," he said.
Beyond that, he speculated that the major role of nanotechnology might be in new materials, for example in catalysts for energy generation or emissions scrubbing, membranes for fuel cells or huge storage capacitors, or new materials for strong, light-weight transmission lines and new kinds of lighting.
The symposium held Wed. (Sept. 17) examined the role of nanotechnology in the future of energy production, distribution and consumption. Speakers outlined the coming problems of the global energy industry and then suggested ways in which the nano cavalry might ride over the hill at the right moment.
Leading off, Marston spent little time outlining the problem facing the North American electric grid. He simply pointed to the recent blackout as the largest incident of its kind in world history and called for the following changes:
First, the transmission infrastructure some 275,000 miles of high-voltage transmission lines, 90,000 substations and their sensors, switches, circuit breakers and transformers-had to be brought into the digital age.
"All of this is 1950s-vintage electromechanical equipment today," he observed. "There are generators on line now that when they are taken out of service will be 90 years old."
Second, the CTO said that transmission and communications infrastructure had to be integrated #151; to prevent the communications failures that seem to have led to the recent blackout, but also to permit load and supply information to flow freely through the grid.
Third, he said that power meters on factories, businesses and homes had to become two-way windows, so that the utilities could see what loads they were facing and so that homes could provide, as well as see the instantaneous cost of, power. This led naturally to his fourth transformation, the integration of distributed storage and generation facilities, from small hydro projects and cogeneration to individual home photovoltaics, into the power grid.
Finally, Marston called for the cleansing of coal. "We have a 600-year known supply of coal worldwide," he said, "and it continues to be our lowest-cost source of energy. We must find a way to use it without releasing Carbon into the atmosphere."
Marston sounded a note of pessimism about the political will to make these changes. "Since deregulation, the US is spending less in real dollars on electricity infrastructure than it did during the Great Depression," he lamented.
Two speakers from the research community, SRI vice president Lawrence Dubois and UC Berkeley professor Arun Majumdar, filled in additional points of view. Dubois described projects at SRI that could lead to better cathodes-and greatly improved power and energy density for lithium-ion batteries. He also described nanomaterials that could plug the molecular-scale holes in fuel cell membranes to increase performance, and Carbon nanotube structures that could vastly increase the surface area for catalysts.
Turning to sensors, Dubois described an imprinting process where a polymer is solidified around a bacterium or complex molecule, then the target object is removed, forming in effect a plastic antibody-with the addition of a surface-effect transistor, an electrical detector specific to the shape of a particular molecule or bacterium.
Majumdar stood back a bit and suggested that the nanotech industry is passing from its initial phase-creating instrumentation and building blocks-to its development phase of putting the blocks together into useful things. And he made a plea that we direct these efforts to grand challenges that will affect all humanity, not simply provide more toys for the wealthiest humans.
"Only about a hundred million people in the world have incomes over $20,000 per year," he observed. "But we direct all of our technology development at this minority, and assure ourselves that the benefit will trickle down to the majority at the bottom, earning less than $2,000 per year. It's time to look at the needs of that majority-with little to spend, but with huge needs and huge numbers."
In particular he pointed to the challenge of providing, by his estimate, 10 teraWatts of Carbon-free electric power to the world by 2050. He then described how nanoengineered materials could increase the efficiency of photovoltaics enough to make them a major part of the solution. "Even with existing technology, we would only need to cover an area the size of the San Joaquin valley," he said. "The problem is cost, not feasibility."
He also described how nanowire structures could improve the efficiency of Peltier-junction generators.
Michael Riddle, head of strategic research at ChevronTexaco, conveyed a similar message to use nanotechnology for the extraction of oil.
He observed that there are only about 40 years' worth of known oil reserves of a weight and composition that would be useful to today's extraction and refining technology. He suggested with some humor that ChevronTexaco seemed to be on the leading edge of this problem because they had a gift for only discovering high-viscosity, sulfur-rich oil.
Riddle called for help from nano-engineered materials to create new separation processes and catalysts for reducing viscosity and sulfur content.
In addition Riddle pointed to two interesting materials problems. One was the aging refinery situation in the US. "There will probably never be another refinery built in the US," he said, "but our refineries are getting old. So old that in order to prevent accidents and disasters we are going to have to operate them at a lower level of criticality-that is refinery-speak for lower temperature and pressure. That will require new catalysts to make operation feasible."
Riddle also posed the problem of the off-shore oil platform. Modern platforms are hollow steel cylinders hundreds of feet long that are tipped on end and anchored to the bottom over a set of well holes. The cylinders must be huge because their buoyancy must support the weight of feed pipes and cables-often over two miles long-reaching to the well heads and the anchor points on the ocean floor below.
Thus the platforms are like enormous jellyfish floating at the surface with tons of tentacles trailing beneath them.
"Obviously a modest improvement in the strength/weight ratio of materials would make a huge difference to the design of the platforms," Riddle said.