Authors: Dr Said Said (Senior Scientist)
Editors: Prof Mika Valden (Chairman of the Board), Panu Nordlund (CBO) and Sini Levisalo
The urgent need to address the devastating impacts of climate change has been a catalyst for emerging technologies that could pave our way to a more sustainable future. Nanotechnology in particular holds the potential to enable innovations that bring us closer to achieving the ultimate goal, net-zero emissions.
But what is nanotechnology? “Nanotechnology is the understanding and control of matter at nanoscale where unique phenomena enable novel applications. Nanomaterials can exhibit unusual physical, chemical and biological properties at the nanoscale, differing from the properties of bulk materials, single atoms and molecules” as put by the late Nobel Prize Physicist, Richard Feynman.
Nanoscale is measured with nanometers, where one nanometer is one-billionth of a meter. For example, the width of a human hair equals approximately 80 000 nanometers.
Nanomaterials often possess quantum confinement effects and high surface area that govern unique and enhanced physicochemical and electrochemical properties, such as distinct colours, semiconductors, magnetic, and catalytic properties. The small nature of nanoparticles in turn also means we’re able to exploit less materials and operate technologies at lower cost.
Shaping Our Present and Future
To this date, nanotechnology has observed 50 years of research and application with continuous expansion in almost every field of science.
We have already observed impactful commercial applications of new nanotechnologies. Most recently, the biomedical field combated the spread of Covid-19 by using lateral flow tests based on antibody-modified gold nanoparticles with close to 3 billion tests delivered worldwide. In addition, more than 12.7 billion vaccine doses that are based on lipid nanoparticle technology were administered across 187 countries.
In the context of renewable energies, nanotechnology has already led to significant progress in various areas. For example, improving solar energy through photovoltaic cells, enhancing energy storage with nanoporous zeolites, and nanocatalysts for hydrogen production. Each of these applications utilizing one or more nano-architectures.
Catalyst for Change
At the forefront of these technologies, replacing fossil fuels with green fuels is critical given the vast energy infrastructure dependency. Distinct from biofuels, which are produced from biomass, green fuels are synthesized from a combination of electrochemically driven reactions, namely, carbon dioxide reduction – at a cathode – and water oxidation – at an anode – to produce carbon-neutral hydrocarbons such as carbon monoxide or so called ‘e-fuels’. The best part is, the only byproduct of this process is oxygen.
Adopting such carbon dioxide based electrochemical refinery technologies is critical to not only recycling carbon dioxide but also assisting in reducing and even potentially reversing emissions.
The efficient generation of carbon monoxide has recently entered the market at a commercially competitive level with state-of-the-art performances - and efforts to ramp up to a gigaton scale in the near future. Carbon monoxide, which, for example, serves as an industrially valuable feedstock in syngas used to make liquid fuels via existing processes such as Fischer-Tropsch synthesis.
Targeting more carbon dense products such as ethylene and ethanol on a similar level is set to become the next revolutionary phase in e-fuel and e-chemical technologies. Hence, current research is heavily focused on nanocatalyst development to further enhance properties such as activity, selectivity of products, and as well as prolonging the overall stability of components used.
In addition, the design and manufacturing of electrolyzers that host these crucial processes can also be developed to maximize overall efficiency whilst lowering cost. In turn, such emerging technologies are to be integrated with carbon capture plants and powered through existing renewable energy generation by solar cells and wind turbines amongst others as a form of electrical energy transformation processes, collectively termed as Power-to-X (P2X).
There are also underlying challenges regarding nanotechnology. Understanding the nanoscale processes involved in energy applications can be complex, but the end result often brings us closer to new and improved systems. In addition, it is also critical to exploit the safety, life-cycle assessments and techno-economic and potential environmental factors before taking full advantage of the endless solutions nanotechnology is making possible and more importantly, could provide us in the future.
Dr Said Said (Senior Scientist), Liquid Sun Ltd.
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