The power of being made very small
Nano-engineering can produce substances with unique properties that will give renewable energy a boost
BIG improvements in the production of energy, especially from renewable sources, are expected over the coming years. Safer nuclear-power stations, highly efficient solar cells and the ability to extract more energy from the wind and the sea are among the things promised. But important breakthroughs will be needed for these advances to happen, mostly because they require extraordinary new materials.
The way researchers will construct these materials is now becoming clear. They will engineer them at the nanoscale, where things are measured in billionths of a metre. At such a small size materials can have unique properties. And sometimes these properties can be used to provide desirable features, especially when substances are formed into a composite structure that combines a number of abilities. A series of recent developments shows how great that potential might be.
Researchers have already become much better at understanding how the structure of new nano-engineered materials will behave, although the process remains largely one of trial and error because different samples have to be repeatedly manufactured and tested. Michael Demkowicz of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology is developing a model that he hopes will address the problem from a different direction: specifying a set of desired properties and then trying to predict the nanostructures needed to deliver them.
Dr Demkowicz is working with a team based at the Los Alamos National Laboratory, one of a number of groups being funded under a new $777m five-year programme by the American government to accelerate research into energy technologies. The material Dr Demkowicz is looking for will be good at resisting damage from radiation. It could be used instead of stainless steel to line a nuclear reactor, which would extend the reactor’s working life and allow it to be operated more efficiently by burning a higher percentage of nuclear fuel. At present, says Dr Demkowicz, reactors burn only around 1% of their fuel, so even a modest increase in fuel burn would leave less radioactive waste.