Sustainable Energy for All: Nanomaterials Could Hold the Key
25 April 2023
The global quest for ensuring sustainable access to energy for all is at the heart of the perennial debate on climate change and sustainable development. A technological fix herein is very much the need of the hour. Can breakthroughs in nanomaterials pave the way forward for a clean energy revolution?
Nation-states have looked upon advances in science and technology as a means to solve challenges facing humanity ever since the dawn of the industrial era. Advances in S&T offers a range of options to tackle developmental challenges in practically every area, including healthcare, economy, ecology, energy and environment. Nanotechnology is one such emerging area that holds immense potential to solve the challenges plaguing the planet in current times. It could thus play an essential role in the worldwide quest to achieve Sustainable Development Goals by 2030.
Nanotechnology can be understood as the “study, design creation, synthesis, manipulation, and application of functional materials, devices, and systems through control of matter at the nanometre scale (1-100 nanometres, one nanometre being equal to 1 × 10−9of a meter), that is at the atomic and molecular levels, and the exploitation of novel phenomena and properties of matter at that scale”. The origins and subsequent mainstreaming of nanoscience research is generally attributed to American physicist Richard Feynman. In a 1959 lecture titled “There’s Plenty of Room at the Bottom”, Feynman illuminated the breakthroughs that could be achieved through manipulating and controlling things at a molecular level. The subsequent decades have witnessed the nanotechnology transition from scientific research to production in a seamless manner. Nation-states around the world have initiated ambitious programs to engage in cutting-edge research in the area. Meanwhile, countries including South Korea, India, China, Brazil and South Africa have formulated national activities aimed specifically towards addressing the needs of the poor.
Various sub-fields within nanotechnology such as nanomedicine, nanobiotechnology and nanoelectronics are pivotal to achieving improvements in key areas including water purification, health sciences and energy. Nanomaterials is a key field of research under nanotechnology. These nanomaterials are essentially lighter in weight, have higher strength and greater chemical reactivity than their counterparts- the larger materials. Nanomaterials offer a wide range of uses due to their small size. These materials have particular relevance for “ensuring access to clean and affordable energy” and “combat climate change and its impacts”. Moreover, nanomaterials are directly relevant to addressing the multifaceted challenge of global warming. Political efforts to tackle these problems generally concentrate on three key areas: promoting more energy-efficient policies, increasing the usage of renewable energy sources, and implementing methods for capturing carbon emissions and converting them through catalytic processes and other means. Advances in nanomaterials in the current context are integral to implementing these aforementioned approaches.
Nanotechnologies provide the potential to boost efficiency and reduce costs in a variety of areas of energy development. This is especially evident in the production of renewable energy using improved materials and components. Nanotechnology has enabled several breakthroughs in solar cells, thereby improving their energy efficiency and cost effectiveness. As discussed in the paper titled “Applications of Nanotechnologies in the Energy Sector”, key breakthroughs in solar cells include, “thin-layer solar cells, Titanium Dioxide Nanoparticles in Dye Solar Cells, Fullerene Derivates as Electron Acceptors in Polymer Solar Cells, Nanolayers in Stack Cells, Quantum Dots for solar cells and Nanostructured Anti reflection layers”. These advances are said to boost the cells’ ability to absorb sunlight while being cost effective.
In the transition towards wind energy, carbon nanotube (CNT) composites show promise in mitigating the deleterious effects of lightning strikes, which account for over 12% of wind generator failures. Regarding the recovery of fossil fuels, the newly established "nano for energy" consortium, boasting a multi-billion-dollar budget and comprising major oil companies such as BP, Shell, and ConocoPhillips, is committed to investigating the deployment of nanotechnologies in improving the efficiency of oil and gas production. Additionally, in the field of energy conversion, the development of nano-optimized fuel cells and nano-catalysts for hydrocarbon-based fuels, alongside advancements in energy storage such as lithium-ion batteries, supercapacitors, and hydrogen storage, demonstrate considerable potential for paving the way forward for a clean energy revolution.
However, numerous observers have expressed concerns about the potential risks associated with nanotechnology, including Canada's ETC group and several US-based nanotech-driven NGOs. They have highlighted the toxic nature of certain nano materials, such as solid silver, which can accumulate in the environment and disrupt the food chain, posing a threat to both human health and the environment. Additionally, there is a concern about the technology gap between developed and developing nations, which could widen further as the use of nanoparticles continues to grow. To mitigate these risks, there must be increased research and government regulation of nanotechnology manufacturers to prevent misuse by profit-driven private companies. It is necessary to debate the use of nanotechnology in the environment and implement international regulations to ensure that the technology is used in a sustainable and ethical manner.
Disclaimer:The article expresses the author’s views on the matter and do not reflect the opinions and beliefs of any institution they belong to or of Trivium Think Tank and the StraTechos website.
Shuchi Shukla is a postgraduate scholar at the Department of Geopolitics and International Relations, Manipal Academy of Higher Education. Her area of interest lies in the geopolitics of energy, energy transition and climate action in the Global South, and S&T.