Nano Science and Technology Institute

Glowing Future for Nano in Energy To Be Explored at Nanotech2006 in Boston

Richard E. Smalley Institute Director Dr. Wade Adams outlines nano projects for light-weight autos, home-based power storage, resistance-free grids, and cell phones that can run for days on a single charge
Dr Wade Adams sees a glowing future for nano in the energy sector. And, he’s got the right credentials.

Dr. Adams is Director of the Richard E. Smalley Institute for Nanoscale Science and Technology at Rice University in Houston, Texas. Nano World News caught up with Dr. Adams to discuss his view of the near-term and future prospects for how nano might change energy industry in the coming years. As you’ll see, he is very bullish.

To learn much more about the nano-for-energy portfolio of Rice’s Smalley Institute for Nanoscale Science and Technology, plan to attend NSTI’s Nanotech 2006, May 7-11 in Boston. During Nanotech 2006, Dr. Wade Adams will discuss Rice’s ongoing nano-research projects, as well as growing partnerships with energy and exploration firms. (

Adams, who will oversee more than 120 nano scientists and researchers at Rice, spends more than one-third of his time focused on energy issues. And, his university is in the heart of the oil patch, where he speaks with executives from oil, gas and drilling firms regularly.

From his perch, both inside one of the nation’s oldest and largest nano lab and outside campus during discussions with energy executives, Dr. Adams says nano has the power to improve every aspect of the U.S. energy industry – from exploration, recovery, generation and transmission. Here’s part of Dr. Adams’ near-term (and tantalizing) laundry list of on-going nano-energy research at Rice:

  • Boost battery life for your cellphone or your laptop, where you could be online, or on the phone all-day – or for several days – without having to plug-in. This is made possible by a handful of CNT and new nano-based composites.
  • Cut gas consumption by working with automakers on light-weight nano-based composite materials, which could cut the average weight of an auto by more than 70%, while increasing its strength by 4-5 times. Nano composites could also bring more efficient wiring and generators to further cut oil use.
  • Improve exploration by replacing mud-pumped powered drills with a new era of drill engines that can be sent down a deep shaft, and attached directly to drills to speed up and cut costs for drilling a mile or more underground.
  • Create tougher-yet-flexible coating and rubbers for devices used as well caps, drill-bits, gaskets and hundreds of other spots throughout a drilling project. These nano-enforced materials would cut weight and improve strength of all sorts of above- and below-ground products used by oil and gas drillers.

A Bolder Vision for Nano-Energy’s Future:
The Nanotube-Enabled Energy Grid

As cool as these nano-energy development might be, Dr. Adams is driven by a bolder, longer-term vision for single-walled carbon nanotubes (SWNTs). Dr. Adams sees a time when nano will virtually reshape how we gather, store and transmit energy.

“There are quite a few things that nano technologies can do to help us stretch our energy use today,” Dr. Adams told NWN. “But, nano’s real future will knock your socks off.”

One of the keys to these sock-shaking nano programs for energy is the Armchair Quantum Wire (AQW), Dr. Adams explains. AQW is a SWNT-based wire with physical properties conducive to flowing electrons that AQW cables could literally let electricity (in the form of electrons) glide across a grid for 1,000 miles with virtually no resistance or power loss.

The dream of “friction free” electricity has been around for decades, since the emergence of superconductor technologies in the 1980s. And, while research continues in that sector, the SWNT-based AQW has an advantage over superconductors: AQWs don’t have to be cooled to cryogenic temperatures, and so could prove to be much more efficient. “The armchair quantum wire can simply by its structure propagate an electron down the length of a nanotube, much like light waves travel down an optical fiber,” Dr. Adams said.

Rice’s Smalley Institute for Nanoscale Science and Technology has been working on AQW prototypes, in the hopes of understanding more about their manufacture, and how to fabricate them into electric grid-ready fibers and cables. The AQW cables would be a revolutionary leap beyond copper, providing lighter, stronger, more conductive cables with vastly more capacity.

Armchair Quantum Wires are tiny, and it will take 10 to-the-14th power of them in one centimeter. But small is a good thing for scaling power, Dr. Adams says. “While each AQW can conduct 20 microAmps of electricity, you put 10-14th of them together and you can get 10 million amps down a single filament. And, when you put multiple filaments together into a single cable, like they put multiple filaments in an optical cable, you could easily get billions of amps.” These numbers may be mind-numbing, but the comparison to copper puts it all into perspective. A single copper cable carriers just under 2,000 amps.

But, for all their benefits, SWNTs are one of the toughest research challenges at the Smalley Institute and elsewhere, Dr. Adams concedes. At a current price of $250/gram (or about $113,000 per pound), the state of SWNT manufacture falls dramatically short of a grid project. Dr. Adams says the goal is to get costs down to around $100-$500 per pound. “At that level, you could begin to re-engineer a grid with SWNT at a reasonable cost.”

Other challenges on Dr. Adams’ plate are: improving purity of manufacture, defining a best practice for assembling SWNTs together into longer fibers, and setting a replicable manufacturing process. “We have a proof of concept that we can use a catalyst to get the tubes to attach themselves in larger quantities, but we are still looking at how long we can get them to grow.”

But the AQW grid is just one element of Dr. Adams nano-energy picture for the future. Augmenting the nano-enabled grid would be a network of nano-enabled electricity storage devices, or what Dr. Adams suggests might be called “nano-batteries.” These nano-batteries would in effect become “distributed storage” devices to further supply energy to the grid.

Under Dr. Adams’ vision, these distributed storage devices, which would be built from CNTs and nano-composite technologies, would be washing machine-sized batteries available for the home, would cost about $1,000, and provide a homeowner with about a week of stored energy (1000 kw hours).

And adding the two long-term ideas together – grid and distributed energy storage – one comes away with the true boldness of Dr. Adams’ nano-fueled energy vision.

“When you hook up your battery to the grid, you could make your energy available to anyone else on the grid, so in sunny and windy Texas you could ship energy to Seattle where it rains a lot,” Dr. Adams said. “Today, the best we can do is ship energy 100-200 miles, and even there is a lot of loss. Imagine a day when you can generate renewable energy from sun and wind where there is not a lot of population, and send it cheaply to high-population centers. It may be a while, but this technology could even let us ship solar energy from Saudi Arabia to New York instead of oil.”

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