Recently, I have been researching on alternative energy sources as part of a Chemistry related science club presentation. Solar panels, hydroelectric dams, wind turbines, geothermal heat pumps, were the first ideas that popped into my mind. We commonly hear about these forms of technology that are used to harness the renewable energy sources that are available to us and significant research and development have vastly improved our efficiency in utilizing these sources. However, many of these options are of larger scales and as an individual consumer, we may not have the capability or accessibility to switch towards these renewable sources even if we wanted to. Researching further into smaller scale forms of renewable energy technology, I found that innovations of all sizes are taking place, the most interesting of which is in the nascent field of nanotechnology used in harnessing solar power.
A Ted Talks by Justin Hall-Tipping, founder of a nanotechnology based energy research company called Nanoholdings, discusses some of his latest creations on how to “generate, transmit, store, and use”(Nanoholdings) solar power. Initially, he began with a common problem of the transfer of heat energy through windows in a home. The picture below illustrates how in the summer, the energy coming from the sun is heating the home that we are trying to keep cool, while in the winter, the heat is escaping from the home we are trying to keep warm.
Aiming to give consumers the ability to control the heat transfer occurring through their windows, Nanoholdings’s nanotechnology material uses Carbon, which undergoes a reaction where “graphite is blasted by a vapor, and when the vaporized Carbon condenses, it condenses back into a different form…called a Carbon nanotube”(Hall-Tipping).
Vaporizing Carbon Structure of Carbon Nanotube
The unique thing about this nanotube is that it is “a hundred thousand times smaller than the width of one of your hairs” and “a thousand times more conductive than Copper”(Hall-Tipping). Because Carbon at the nanoscale behaves and looks very differently, instead of being black and solid, it is actually transparent and flexible. Combined with a plastic during manufacturing, this Carbon nanotube can actually undergo permanent changes in color by using merely “two volts from a millisecond pulse” (Hall-Tipping) per color change. If this material were used on a window, in its colored state, it will reflect away all heat energy from the sun, helping to insulate a cool home. Vice versa, while in its transparent state, it will allow all heat energy from the sun to pass through, helping to warm a home.
Transparent Carbon Nanotube Colored Carbon Nanotube
Another ongoing project at Nanoholdings called “NIRVision”, uses nanotechnology like above to develop “flexible, thin films…to convert infrared light into visible light”(Nanoholdings). Similar to how more modern night-vision goggles work, a “photo-detector film converts invisible infrared light into electrons…these electrons stimulate an optical film like a thin flexible display, to create a visible image”(Nanoholdings). As we know, the flow of electrons is a source of electrical energy. Hall-Tipping goes on to describe how if we combined the film created in NIRVision with the Carbon nanotube illustrated above, then we would have a material that takes “infrared radiation and converts it into electrons” (Hall-Tipping) and because of its flexibility and transparency, we would be able to attach it to any surface to ultimately become a free source of clean energy.
The applications of this nanotechnology-developed material are endless, as a free source of clean energy is the solution to both our rising energy demand and our Earth’s rising temperature. Unfortunately, this material is still being tested and until we are able to efficiently manufacture it at a low cost to the environment, we must continue our gradual movement towards renewable sources of energy and a more environmentally conscious mindset. Similar to Steven’s post on the revolutionary perspective of silk, Nanoholdings was able to take one of the most common and abundant elements, Carbon, view it from a different perspective, and alter it in a way as to develop a material with new and desired properties. An even greater implication lies in how Hall-Tipping is able to combine two different technologies with different applications and generate a new one with completely new applications. Developing brand new technology may be life changing, but sometimes the most sublime of solutions can lie in how well we can take advantage of what we already have.
Hall-Tipping, Justin. “Justin Hall-Tipping: Freeing Energy from the Grid | Video on TED.com.” TED: Ideas worth Spreading. TED Conferences, Oct. 2011. Web. 09 Nov. 2011. <http://www.ted.com/talks/lang/eng/justin_hall_tipping_freeing_energy_from_the_grid.html>.
Nanoholdings. “Nanoholdings – Portfolio – New Technologies – Nirvision.” Nanoholdings. Nanoholdings LLC. Web. 09 Nov. 2011. <http://nanoholdings.com/portfolio/new-technologies/nirvision>.