The US electricity distribution grid is around 100-years old and aging faster than new construction renews it while peak demand for electricity is projected to rise 19 percent nationally during the next decade--capital investments in electrical generation, transmission and distribution are forecast to grow by only 6 percent over the same period, according to the Electrical Power Research Initiative.
Researchers at E2TAC, the Energy and Environmental Technology Applications Center at the University at Albany's College of Nanoscale Science and Engineering (CNSE) are researching and developing a range of leading edge nanoscale technologies that hold out the promise of realizing greater yields at lower costs across a range of conventional, as well as renewable alternative power generation technologies.
EPRI’s analysis clearly shows that if we can deploy a "full technology portfolio, we can provide lower-carbon electricity throughout the economy while simultaneously meeting additional demand for electricity due to population growth and economic expansion," Palo Alto-based EPRI’s president and CEO Steve Specker stated in a media release.
"One of the keys to addressing this challenge is innovation, and some of the most promising solutions are occurring at the smallest scale - the nanoscale," Pradeep Halwar, professor of nanoscale engineering and director at CNSE’s Energy and Environmental Technology Applications Center maintains.
The potential for new nanoscale technology to improve power efficiencies and the lifespan of equipment used in power generation, transportation and distribution is already and increasingly evident for both existing conventional and new alternative energy systems, according to Haldar.
The latest generation of fossil fuel plants, including coal-fired ones, requires components able to withstand higher temperatures and pressures in order to raise efficiency, lower maintenance costs and decrease emissions levels. Abrasion, corrosion and oxidation in the main degrade equipment and parts at their surfaces. New nano-coatings are being used on raw water and pretreatment systems, cooling water, service water and fire protection systems, condensers, cooling towers, auxiliary heat exchangers, low-pressure feedwater heaters an piping, de-aerators, steam turbines, electric generators, air heaters and ducts, flue gas de-sulfurization systems and flue gas ducts and stacks, protecting metallic components and extending their life while increasing output and reducing energy consumption and emissions.
Longer term, some of nanotechnology’s most exciting and valuable contributions in the energy sector are likely to be seen in the renewable, alternative energy sector, however, Haldar asserts.
“Today, the renewables industry represents the fastest-growing energy market in the world: global wind generation has grown threefold over the past five years and the production of photovoltaic solar cells is more than six times greater than in 2000 - and nanoscale science and engineering are playing an increasingly critical role," he states in a media release.
Nanoscale processes, materials and devices are already part of the process through which silicon-based photovoltaic solar cells — which make up some 95 percent of the market today - produce electricity. They are also the focus of research and development of a new generation of solar power technology that includes ultra-thin amorphous silicon, organic and inorganic solar cells derived from nanocrystals that can convert sunlight into electricity at a fraction of the cost of silicon solar cells. These solar nanocells are so small and pliable that they can be painted on to physical structures so that the walls of a building may one day soon be able to generate electricity.
Nanotechnology is also moving hydrogen fuel cell research and development forward. It holds the potential to put hydrogen storage directly in the fuel cell directly using nanoengineered carbon, zeolites or stacked clays. In addition, “nanoengineered electrodes in the form of cathodes and anodes are currently being manufactured and incorporated in solid oxide and polymer electrode-based fuel cells that provide higher efficiency and performance,” Haldar noted. Nanoengineering processes also afford the benefit of reducing the amount of platinum-- used as a catalyst—by using platinum nanoparticles to increase surface area and lower volume, as well as improving the functioning and durability of fuel cells’ membranes.
Similarly, there are opportunities to apply nanoscale materials and processes in wind power generation by improving the efficiency of wind turbines. “Nanotechnology impacts the wind industry in general, by improving turbine performance and reliability to allow for longer lifetime, less fatigue failure, and lower costs of generation,” according to Haldar.