Nanotechnology and Alternative Fuels

We recently received some communications from the Club of Amsterdam, a progressive European think tank which focuses on energy and environmental matters. Their director, one Felix Bopp, suggested that we might wish to interview some of their analysts who, he asserted, might have something to say of interest concerning alternative fuels.

In due course I telephoned Paul Holister, a club member and an authority on nanotechnology and energy who has been variously employed by Shell Oil, Oracle, and Scientifica, the last being a scientific consultancy with an energy practice. We’d never covered nanotech during Juice’s brief publishing history, and I thought it might make for an interesting departure from the usual fare about ethanol plant openings and global warming.

Nanotechnology, one may recall was one of the cornerstone technologies in the great nineties tech boom, and while the hype it generated never approached that associated with dotcoms or broadband, nano still attracted more than its share of hot venture dollars. Newt Gingrich as I recall was big on it, and should his current revived political aspirations come to fruition, perhaps we can expect a nano-Presidency of sorts.

At any rate, I wasted little time with small talk when I had succeeded in rousing Mr. Holister who resides in the south of France some eight time zones away from me. “What role does nanotechnology play in the alternative fuels business?” I asked him after the briefest of hellos.

“Not much of a role at present,” Holister returned. “It does figure in the design of some catalysts, and in fact there are certain chemicals which only exhibit catalytic tendencies when arranged in certain nano-structures. There’s a company called Headwater which is promoting a nanocatalyst for coal-to-liquid conversions.”

And why should nano-structures be of such importance in catalysis, I asked.

“They enable you to increase effective surface area,” said Holister, “so that you’re leveraging the catalytic material more effective. If you’re dealing with an expensive catalyst like platinum in a PEM fuel cell, that’s significant.

As our conversation proceeded, Holister’s initial comment as to the relative unimportance of nanotechnology in the alternative fuels space appeared progressively less apt as he cited a number of additional applications.

“nanostructures will enable us to separate out carbon dioxide from waste streams for the purpose of carbon sequestration,” said Holister. “Another more remote possibility is biological fuel cells where the organisms themselves will grow nano-wires to facilitate the reaction of hydrogen with water.”

Holister sees more immediate applications of nanotechnology occurring in areas that are competitive with alternative fuels, however. “In the area of high performance batteries most of the breakthroughs involve nano-structures,” he notes. “We’re also seeing the employment of carbon nano-tubes in ultracapacitors, and that may ultimately prove the most fruitful area. In fact, the substitution of ultracapacitors for batteries is not beyond the realm of possibility in many areas.”

We happen to think that Holister’s focus on batteries is correct and that high output batteries will play a fairly immediate role in transport as the first plug-in hybrids enter the marketplace. How the revival of electric traction will affect the alt fuels business is uncertain, however. Ultimately most of the energy to charge high performance batteries is likely to continue to emanate from the combustion of fuels, and, in our view gasified coal will be the pre-eminent fuel for some time to come, though we admit the possibility of biomass playing a major part in the total energy balance. But whatever energy source or sources come to the fore in the years to come, the rather modest contribution from nanotechnology at present is apt to expand considerably.