Is nanotechnology the solution to all our energy problems?

Nanotechnology – door to the universe. Source: deviantart.com

Innovations in the field of nanotechnology and quantum mechanics are rapidly thrusting modern society into the future.

One particular area that will become revolutionised by nanotechnology is the energy sector. Just as earlier advances in chemistry and physics radically changed the face of energy production, nanotechnology is bound to revolutionise the industry even further again.

Previous advances in nanotechnology have already stirred discussion about the future of energy production and sustainability, having risen the potential to make solar power more efficient and improved the quality of existing fuel cells, as just a couple of examples.

This week, one more piece in this puzzle was produced, as researchers from the University of Adelaide (my hometown) developed a new namomaterial which could reduce the carbon emissions of burning coal in the future.

Now you can have your spongecake and eat it too

This new nanomaterial is an absorbent fabric, produced on a nano-scale, that can efficiently split the carbon dioxide from the nitrogen when burning flue gas.

“It is like a sponge but at a nanoscale,” said the project leader, Associate Professor Christopher Sumby.

“The material has small pores that gas molecules can fit into – a CO2 molecule fits but a nitrogen molecule is slightly too big. That’s how we separate them.”

Once properly refined, the technology could make carbon storage much easier and cost-efficient.

The nanotechnological innovation, if developed for industrial use, could be very invaluable as other methods of separating carbon dioxide from nitrogen are energy-intensive and expensive.

It is also a big development as, according to Sumby, “removing CO2 from the flue gas mixture is the focus of a lot of research” already.

But most importantly, the nanomaterial has the ability to allow us to continue using coal to feed our ever-increasing energy demands and economic growth needs, whilst drastically cutting back on our emissions levels too.

A silver bullet in the Australian clean energy debate

“A considerable amount of Australia’s – and the world’s – carbon dioxide emissions come from coal-fired power stations,” said Sumby, who is also an Australian Research Council Future Fellow in Adelaide University’s School of Chemistry and Physics.

“Most of Australia’s energy generation still comes from coal.”

Indeed, Sumby is right. Australia has one of the biggest coal industries in the world, and is largely dependent on its coal production (see here). It is a main driver of economic growth, as a vital export and principal source of domestic electricity production.

But whilst Australia looks to cut down on greenhouse gas emissions, like that coming from carbon dioxide, a strong dilemma presents itself in the need to transition to a low-carbon economy in the future.

So this could be a profoundly significant breakthrough in the context of Australia’s energy situation, as a potential silver bullet in this surfacing dilemma.

Australia’s economic growth, it is argued, may be compromised by the need to regulate or tax carbon emissions coming from the coal industry.

This claim is, in my opinion, debatable but what isn’t is the idea that the conundrum posed by needing to transition to a low-carbon future will be mitigated by a technology that stops the release of carbon emissions from coal altogether.

And this is a crucial point. We currently sit at a difficult impasse in the climate/energy debate because of the furious deadlock between climate skeptics and conservatives on one side and environmentalists and other proponents of climate action on the other.

The former sit in their corner, saying that coal and fossil fuel are the only economically viable energy sources to date, and moving away from them, or regulating them, would be catastrophic for the economy.

In the other corner, the latter argue that the emissions released by fossil fuels are causing dangerous climate change and unless we move away from them, it would be catastrophic for the environment – and biodiversity, international security, the economy, and so too the whole human race as a result.

This new nanomaterial could be the bridge between the two groups – an enabler of both the continuing existence of the coal industry and of emissions reductions.

Nanotechnology and the sustainability debate

There is no argument that the technology to provide renewable energy is too inefficient and investment into the field is not strong enough to make it widely accessible for a while yet.

Yet fossil fuels are not sustainable under current technologies and can only provide economic growth while they exist – and this is relative to how much we exploit them in the present.

While this was an issue for sustainability and energy security, the threat of climate change makes the transition between fossil fuels and renewable energy even more urgent.

But this nanomaterial has the potential to buy society some time while the technology to provide renewable energy improves to make it more cost-efficient and widely accessible in the future, as Adjunct Professor Sumby made mention.

“Changing to cleaner energies is not that straightforward but, if we can clean up the emissions, we’ve got a great stop-gap technology,” he said.

Until then, we need something to help fossil fuels emit less greenhouse gases. As natural gas is only marginally better than coal, and environmentalists and greenies often reject the cases for fracking and nuclear power on environmental or humanitarian grounds (which are debatable), this could be a sound solution.

At the moment, there will always be an economic imperative to continue using fossil fuels. But now, this provides the potential for the development of renewable energy technology to continue at its own pace, while ensuring that coal isn’t spouting potentially dangerous greenhouse gases in the meantime.

This invalidates any conservative who claims that investment in renewable energy isn’t worth it – if it can continue to increase without being obstructed by political or ideological opposition couched in arguments against climate action destroying the coal industry, it can only be a good thing.

The freedom it affords renewable energy innovation also provides reassurances for sustainability concerns as well.

Along with this, the nano-sponge material has the potential to be cost-efficient and can recycle the carbon dioxide that it isolates for reuse, with small changes in temperature or pressure, another bonus for sustainable energy planning.

Overall, however, nanotechnology is generally touted as having massive transformative capabilities for the energy sector, which conservatives have been waiting for after arguing human innovation would contradict the need to mitigate the challenges presented by the limits to growth and climate change through regulation.

It has the potential to reduce pollution, conserve resources and start building a “clean” economy now as well.

Investing in nanotechnology is investing in our future

Of course, this is all still speculation. The research is still fresh, and further research and investment in developing it into a practical technology are needed to make it available for industrial use.

This may take years, perhaps even decades, and this is far too much time in the context of climate change mitigation.

But what is needed in the present is some compromise between conservatives and greenies, climate skeptics and climate warmists, and this provides an outlet for such a compromise.

It would therefore be beneficial for both camps to invest money in nanotechnological research and help prop up innovative ideas such as Adelaide Uni’s new nanomaterial.

It is often argued, mainly by conservatives or climate skeptics who want to find ways of discouraging climate action, that regulating the fossil fuel industry won’t even help reduce emissions without proper investment in alternative energy sources and innovative technologies.

Well, here, for once, I agree with those people. It is irresponsible to phase out one industry without supporting another to eventually take its place.

Where I disagree is that there is no incentive to actually invest in these energy sources; on the contrary, it would not only be environmentally friendly, but it will be rational in an economic sense to take some money out of the billions we’re earning from fossil fuels now and invest it into research and innovation in other energy sources.

This is a path already trod down by Norway, which reaped the benefits of a boom in oil by nationalising profits made by oil companies (a proposal we happened to reject when we dismantled the mining tax) before turning to renewable energy to power the country.

Investment in various energy sources will ensure that our energy sector is diversified in the future, so that we won’t have to rely on just one power source for financial gain. As the globe looks to transition from carbon-intensive industries in the future, an ever-increasing prospect, this will become even more important.

But this doesn’t mean just investing in known alternative energy sources. This means investing in new, innovative technologies such as that presented by nanotechnology.

Research into these areas needs to be funded, and immediately.

This won’t just help the energy sector, but will fuel the already-existent fire that burns in bright minds who want to innovate the world we live in, like Christopher Sumby.

Investing in the research sector and in innovative ideas will only serve to stimulate our economy even further going into the future. Let’s reward these innovators who have the potential to transform the Australian economy.

If the Liberals tap into these realities in their “Direct Action Plan“, perhaps a move to provide more investment in innovative research like this may provide them with an avenue to make a genuine challenge against the ALP on climate and energy policy.

And there are plenty more pieces to fit in the nanotechnology puzzle.

“This material could be used as it is but there are probably smarter ways to implement the benefits,” said Associate Professor Sumby.

“One of the next steps we’re pursuing is taking the material in powder form and dispersing it in a membrane. That may be more practical for industrial use.”

Where there’s a will there’s a way; and if you want to transition to a low carbon future, start investing time and money in it now.

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