The huge power of the small world in the energy sector

Nanotechnology is the science of the very small. At the nano-scale, materials and chemical/physical reactions can be very different from those taking place in the macroscopic world. With the ability to fabricate nanomaterials, researchers open the door to innovative materials, with tailored properties, and some are truly exotic, when compared with traditional ones.

Nanotechnology has boosted development in several areas, with microelectronics being perhaps the most recognizable one and which, in many cases, should be called nanoelectronics. More importantly, all the progress that we are witnessing in computing power and miniaturization, which allows us to live in this digital age, is mostly due to nanotechnology.

Another area that has experienced great advancement is the energy sector. As an example, not so long ago it would be quite rare to see residential buildings with photovoltaic (PV) panels; nowadays, they can be seen everywhere. In fact, technological development driven by nanotechnology-enabled PV panels to be installed everywhere and, in some countries, their installation is expected to become mandatory in new constructions. As result, prices have dropped by 10-fold in the last 15 years. In this field, a thin layer of only a few dozen atoms of silicon and oxygen allows the semiconductor material to be passivated and allows increasing its electrical performance to a great extent. We should keep in mind that this technology was been studied in the labs since the early 1970s and it took some time to be optimized and become financially interesting and mass-produced.

Hence, research and development must go hand in hand with several other societal sectors. These exponential advancements in the energy sector might be silent, but they are occurring right now, and they are shaping a new society that is less dependent on fossil fuels and it is capable of creating added value at the local scale.

At present, nanotechnology is driving unparalleled advancements in many other areas of the energy sector, namely: electrical mobility; energy storage; and hydrogen. From these three examples, electrical mobility is possibly more noticeable due to the upsurge of electrical vehicles. The improvements provided by nanotechnology can be used in almost all vehicle components, fulfilling technological needs. From the materials used in the battery management system (that allows extending the battery storage capacity), to encapsulants that avoid fires, and to the electrodes and other components of the batteries, nanotechnology is at the core of the electrical vehicle (EV). Energy storage, mostly driven by the EV demand, should also go through huge changes.

All these new applications in the energy sector will greatly contribute to sustainable development, supported by an emerging cleaner society living in smart cities, where the internet-of-things and highly automated manufacturing will be the key for prosperity and decarbonization.

Autors: Pedro Salomé, Jennifer Teixeira, and António Vilanova, from Nanofabrication for Optoelectronic Applications group at the International Iberian Nanotechnology Laboratory (INL)