Improving Our Energy Resources for Today and Tomorrow: Nanotechnology-Enabled Energy Solutions

Nanotechnology has applications in a broad array of traditional and alternative energy technologies, from catalysts to help coal or oil burn cleaner to advanced nanomaterials for affordable, plastic solar cells. The high surface area of some nanostructured materials make them ideal for use in electrodes in batteries and fuel cells. Two-dimensional materials with ideal electrical properties, such as graphene, are being developed for use in supercapacitors. Even huge structures for wind power benefit from nanotechnology—hierarchical nanostructured water-repellent coatings prevent dirt and ice buildup on wind turbine blades to ensure proper operation. 

Revolutionary Breakthrough in Battery Efficiency

In 2010, General Motors rolled out the first mass-produced plug-in hybrid electric car, the Chevy Volt. While much of the car's engineering is unique, its most extraordinary technology is inside the battery that powers the vehicle in electric mode. The battery's lithium-ion chemistry is based in part on a revolutionary breakthrough pioneered by scientists funded by the Department of Energy (DOE). Research has shown that integrated electrode structures at the nanoscale can enhance electrical capacity and that surface protection will improve the design of the interface where the battery’s electrode meets the electrolyte, thereby improving battery energy and efficiency. As the research matured, initial DOE Office of Science support was succeeded by major multi-year funding from the DOE's Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy Vehicle Technologies Program. This funding provided the support to translate the insights gained from basic science into a viable new battery technology.

Efficient Combustion and Reduced Emissions

Natural gas is becoming an increasingly important and widely used fuel for vehicles and electric power plants. In order to mitigate the negative environmental impact of natural gas, it is important to minimize emissions of unburned methane, one of its major constituents and a potent greenhouse gas. With support from the Air Force Office of Scientific Research, researchers have developed a new nanoparticle-based material that catalyzes the burning of methane. These core-shell nanoparticle catalysts contain a 1.8 nanometer diameter palladium core surrounded by a protective but porous shell of cerium oxide. Because small particles tend to clump together when heated and these clumps can reduce a catalyst's activity, the team deposited the nanoparticles on a hydrophobic surface composed of aluminum oxide to ensure they were evenly distributed. The performance of this catalyst is 30 times better than currently available systems and completely burns methane at 400 °C. It also stays intact up to 850 °C. Typical catalysts need to operate at 600 to 700 °C, often lose their efficiency or deactivate when exposed to the high temperatures generated by methane combustion, and leave unburned methane to escape. This new core-shell nanoparticle catalyst could lead to practical ways of scrubbing methane from motor vehicle exhaust and methods for obtaining more efficient combustion in, and reduced emissions from, industrial turbines fueled by natural gas.