Nanotech: Up and Atom


The key to solving the biggest challenge of today could be small – very small – technology. Nobel Prize-winning chemist Richard Smalley says the impending world energy shortage requires several miracles of science that nanotechnology can help to deliver.

Smalley, a professor at Rice University, and two other scientists won the 1996 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for their discovery in 1985 of soccer-shaped molecules known as fullerenes or buckyballs. Smalley's carbon-based buckyballs have been instrumental in launching the burgeoning field of nanotechnology, in which new types of medicines, materials and computer chips are being designed, one atom at a time.

However, Smalley believes that the most urgent mission for chemists to undertake is pursuing technologies needed for creating, storing and transporting renewable energy.

C02 Denial

Last month, Smalley challenged an audience of his peers at the American Chemical Society's National Meeting in Philadelphia to "be on a mission to save the world" and develop cheap and clean energy. "Miracles happen, but not fast enough to solve the challenges ahead of us," he said.

By 2050, the world will need at least twice the current amount of energy being produced today, he said. The current consumption of energy, equivalent to 210 million barrels of oil per day, would have to be increased to at least 450 million barrels to support the world's growing population. And that energy production must not increase pollution.

Nuclear reactors will not provide enough energy to provide for a hydrogen economy, and relying on coal would only increase the real problem of greenhouse gas emissions, Smalley noted, adding, "If you have been in C02 denial, take another look."

Carbon Spinning

But Smalley's call for better breathing through chemistry recognizes many challenges. Scientists would need to use nanotechnology to create home storage systems for hydrogen as well as a new material to replace copper wiring and allow electricity to be sent great distances. Smalley and his fellow researchers at Rice are working on a new carbon "spinning" process that would create a polymer material that will be one-sixth the weight of copper with the same conductivity and have the same strength as steel.

This material could be used to send electricity over great distances, such as from solar farms in the southwest to New York City. "We could be transferring 1000 gigawatts at pennies per gigawatt," he said, explaining that if the conversion of solar energy to electricity could be made more efficient by a factor of 10, large solar farms in six areas of the globe could provide all of the world's required electricity.

Smalley described how nanotechnology can also be used to create "super batteries" for storing hydrogen at homes or businesses to avoid using the electricity grid at peak times of demand. Temporary storage is needed because solar and wind provide energy only intermittently. The batteries for an average home would be about the size of a washing machine and cost less than $1,000.

World's Top 10 Problems

Smalley believes that finding a replacement for fossil fuels is essential to solving the world's top 10 problems, which he said include poverty, hunger, water, the environment and terrorism. Affordable energy would also help to reduce the economic imbalance between have and have nots. "The pharaoh did not live better than the slaves more than Bill Gates or I live better than the poorest two billion people in the world today," Smalley said.

A substantial investment would be needed to create the energy technologies, which Smalley said could happen as soon as 2020, since, "It's time to stop pussyfooting around and get it done." He outlined a nickel and dime approach – a 5-cent tax on each gallon of gas for the next five years, and then a 10-year tax of 10 cents per gallon.

Even if the energy problem isn't solved by then, he said, "At worst we will have created many new technologies and industries for the future."

Beginning of the End

Geophysicist Kenneth Deffeyes' research agrees with Smalley's sense of urgency. Deffeyes, a professor at Princeton University, and the author of "Hubbert's Peak: The Impending World Oil Crisis," said the countdown to the end of the oil era will begin in approximately 15 months. Deffeyes, who also spoke at the ACS meeting, said that as of Thanksgiving 2005, half of all the oil on the planet would be used up. "We should all give thanks for the era of cheap oil, because as of then, it's over," Deffeyes said.

In his book Deffeyes used the formulas of geophysicist M. King Hubbert, who accurately predicted in 1956 that U.S. oil production would peak in the early 1970s coinciding with half of all the oil reserves in the U.S. being consumed. "The exploration game is essentially over," Deffeyes said.

During the following decades, Deffeyes said oil prices will soar because demand will increase while no new supplies will be made available. "The good news is OPEC is no longer in charge of the oil. No one is."

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