Monday, August 18, 2003

Nano knowledge is power

"I will get right to the point. Energy is the single most important problem facing humanity today." - Nanotechnology pioneer Rick Smalley, speaking to the U.S. Congress on July 25, 2002

The day the lights went out in Ann Arbor, I grabbed my laptop, thanked fate that I had recently filled my tank, fought horrible traffic home (one 'burb outside Detroit), got to know my neighbors a little better and played Scrabble by candlelight with my wife. On Friday, still no power and water, so we stuffed the dog and our belongings into the car, and headed north to my inlaws' home off the northern shores of Lake Michigan, a rustic area that was, ironically enough, completely unaffected by the sudden loss of power. While enjoying the three-day weekend on the beach, I cursed myself for not running a Small Times correspondent's report, filed last week, on nanotech and electricity.

Well, we can't all be visionaries like Rick Smalley, as you can see from the quotation that began this entry. Smalley has been reciting the energy mantra for more than a year now, and solving power problems is at the core of his call for an Apollo Program for nanotech. He and others are pushing for a federal commitment of billions of dollars to develop nanotech energy applications. When Smalley speaks, people generally listen, but now Smalley's visions seem nothing less than prophetic. Legislators will want to review what he and others have proposed, including harnessing energy from the sun and the Earth's core and developing smart distributed energy networks.

Lux Capital co-founder and fellow nanotech blogger Josh Wolfe has also given Smalley his props for his solution to energy distribution problems: Superconductive "quantum wire" spun from a carbon nanotube "could quickly move extra power from places that have it to those who need it."

Another source that should be consulted is Robert L. Olson, research director of the Institute for Alternative Futures, a nonprofit research group. In a recently published article in The Futurist, Olsen writes: "Fuel cells and other micro-power sources, collectively called distributed generation, will likely emerge as the most economical approach to providing new electrical generating capacity. Micropower on site or feeding a local grid eliminates the cost of distributing power, and in large utility grids most of the cost is actually in transmitting the power rather than in generating it. On-site and local-scale power eliminates grid losses and makes it possible to harness waste heat for heating and cooling."

One reason Olsen is a big believer in hydrogen: It's clean. "The only emission from fuel cells running on hydrogen is pure water." Acknowledging concerns over just how clean hydrogen really is, Olsen writes that it all depends on how it's produced. If you produce hydrogen using fossil fuel energy, then you're still producing greenhouse gases. "The priority our society gives to minimizing climate change will be a major factor determining what kind of hydrogen economy we create," Olsen writes.

I've made a similar argument for nanotech. The technology, itself, is morally and ethically neutral. It's up to an informed, voting public to decide whether to delve into the dark side.

If you're hungry for even more nanoenergy knowledge, look at Small Times' previous coverage of the California crisis, and an excellent overview in a Small Times cover story written by David Pescovitz.

Too bad that it takes a crisis like this to get legislators and citizens to pay attention to the fragility of our power grid, but maybe now they'll see what the nanotech visionaries have seen for years and finally take action.


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