Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Nano and energy

It might be fun to do a few posts on how nanoscale science can be used to the benefit of our energy concerns.  First, let me specify what I mean when I say that there's an "energy problem".  The fact is, average people enjoying first-world standards of living (e.g., US/Canada/Western Europe/Japan) have an enormous per capita energy consumption compared to, e.g., tribesmen in sub-Saharan Africa, or rural farmers in the hinterland of China.  If the goal is to raise the standard of living of the 5-ish billion people not enjoying the high life, and to get everyone up to a high standard of living, then we've got a problem:  there's no nice way to do so without incurring other enormous costs (e.g., burning enormous quantities of fossil fuels; building GW-scale power plants at very high rates, like several per day for the next 30 years).  Either we're not going to raise that standard of living for those billions of people, or the energy costs for the top economic tier are going to have to fall, or we're headed for major upheaval (or possibly some of all of the above).

When I teach my second-semester nano class, I point this out, and if you want interesting quantitative references, check here.  Broadly construed, nanotechnology and nanoscale science (and more broadly, condensed matter physics and materials science) can try to address several aspects of this challenge, though there are certainly no silver bullets.  The areas that come to mind are:  energy generation; energy storage; energy distribution; conservation or improved efficiency; and environmental remediation.  In future posts, I'll try to summarize very briefly a few thoughts on this.   

1 comment:

Tobias said...

Hi Doug,

in regards to this post, there is an interesting paper I've come across (, that gives an estimate upper bound of how much "renewable" energy can realistically be harvested, due to thermodynamic limitations, by different means - as in the long term, even if we were to expand energy availability by aggressively using fossil fuels, this has to be a long term goal for global energy consumption.

Expanding the use of these sources and conservation efforts will have to go hand in hand I suppose, and I have a somewhat optimistic outlook on that. I saw some figure showing that the average German uses about 1/2 the energy that an average US American does, and I don't think the standard of living in .de is significantly lower.

The hard part, imho, will be getting people on board - when energy conservation and renewable sources are seen as part of a scientific / left wing conspiracy to impede people's lifestyle in some parts of the population.