Nanotechnology: Doing more with less (Part 2)

Rising global consumption is widely acknowledged by major government and academic institutions to pose a severe threat to the security of the world's natural resources and environment. Is human civilization on a collision course with collapse, driven by overconsumption, resource depletion and irreversible damage to the ecosystem or are production technologies changing and improving so rapidly that resource productivity and sustainability will increase sufficiently to avoid such a disaster?

In Part 1 I asked whether economic incentives were required for industry to address the challenges faced by its heavy reliance on fossil fuels. I also wanted to illustrate the need alongside these kinds of measures for radical technological innovation to ensure that alternative sources of energy can provide adequate means of replacing traditional supplies. I believe very firmly that nanotechnologies have a significant opportunity in a number of commercial applications as a result of this continuing trend.

Voluntary initiatives alone seem to be inadequate for tackling the scale of the emissions targets most countries have committed to. The route initially favoured by many US and Western European economists for bringing about such change in the most efficient way possible has been market-based instruments such as cap-and-trade systems i.e. carbon permits. Whereby each permit corresponds to a tonne of CO2 for example, and the governing body in charge of the scheme sets a gradually reducing limit on the number of permits allocated. The advantage of market-based approaches such as carbon permits over more draconian command-and-control measures is that since permits can be traded they therefore transmit clear price signals to the market. Carbon prices indicate whether it makes sense for users to lower fuel consumption, switch between fuels, and to decide whether there is a cost-benefit to employing new cleaner technologies.

As price signals rise, the market should become sufficiently incentivised to invest in new technologies that lower or eliminate emissions, where the commercialisation and diffusion of those technologies is encouraged through the high price of carbon. Price signals from carbon permits however have not risen sharply yet. In fact the European Union Emission Trading Scheme (EU ETS) which is the largest of its kind in the world has already reached its CO2 cap targets for 2020 well ahead of schedule, due to recent low economic output from the Eurozone [1].

Other market-based systems gaining popularity are feebates (a novel combination of fees and rebates) geared towards pulling the market towards greater energy efficiency. These have gained most traction in the transport industry where users receive rebates for vehicles with emission below a set benchmark and conversely pay fees for vehicles with emissions above the benchmark, thereby incentivising the purchase of more energy efficient vehicles and dis-incentivising use of gas guzzlers.

When price signals from permits do eventually rise this should cue more companies to put cash into researching, developing and installing greener technologies to replace or improve those currently used in industry as they to become less competitive on cost. With pressure from feebates influencing consumer purchasing decisions, there will undoubtedly be fierce competition from automotive manufacturers to deliver more efficient models.

Nanotechnology, perhaps unsurprisingly is the basis of many greentech solutions. The reason for this is that ultimately manufacturing revolutions drive resource productivity and manipulating matter at the nanoscale is the most recent example of this kind. Although still in its infancy, this emerging technology has the furthest reaching potential of any such manufacturing transformations. The gains to be made in energy and material efficiency from employing nanotechnology is what lands so many of its possible applications with the "green" label. This is why the aforementioned economic incentives spell good news for nanotech businesses.

We often think how science has shaped the world but it can also be said that the world can shape science. This idea is explored in the BBCs podcast series "Seven Ages of Science" by Lisa Jardine. I think the notion that discoveries and inventions from a particular age can be a product of the social and cultural environment of the time is very true of today's push in the direction of cleantech and greentech. A new paradigm of renewables certainly seems upon us but steady investment and research into new technology is needed to bring about an energy revolution. However investment from capital markets in renewable power and fuels has been in continual decline between 2011 and 2014. Despite this, the cost-benefit in production is actually becoming more attractive, particularly for solar and wind [2]. Since 2009 the costs for solar power projects and onshore wind farms have dropped 59% and 11.5% respectively. In 2011 a $279 bn set of investments would generate 70 Gigawatts whereas $270bn spent in 2014 could generate 95Gigawatts [3].

Even further efficiency in solar energy could be brought about through nanotechnology. One of the current drawbacks to solar cells is the loss of light reaching the diode by being reflected, with most cells reaching only 20% efficiency. With self-cleaning and anti-reflective (AR) coatings this could be greatly mitigated and graphene in particular has been identified as an ideal candidate material for AR layers [4]. Other areas are the flexibility of solar panels and their cost, both of which could be improved with novel printing techniques using nano-based inks and roll-to-roll production processes.

Wind and solar are becoming cheaper and KWh pricing is trending downward so a fixed investment in these technologies today buys more energy production than it did a few years ago, yet KW demand is still increasing so can solar and wind address this alone?

Bill gates doesn't seem to think so, as he recently announced he would be investing $2bn in renewable initiatives, noting there is an urgent need for more high-risk investments in breakthrough technologies [5]. A well-known problem currently with renewables is intermittent production, which is a challenge that requires storage technologies to address that aren't sufficiently advanced at the moment. Take Germany for example, where more than a quarter of its energy is from renewables and solar production in Germany has grown over 25 times in the last decade. The country is still trying to find solutions to the stability problems to avoid blackouts when energy reaching the grid is low.

There is a high demand for better energy storage devices and perhaps for this reason will see some breakthrough technologies in the battery market. There is already a rush of companies investing in use of graphene in battery materials. One of the most promising are LiFePO4/graphene composite cathodes. The charge/discharge rate of LiFePO4 is low but can be greatly improved by graphene which speeds up the Li diffusion within LiFePO4 crystals [6]. Another major application area currently explored with graphene in battery materials is graphene/silicon composites as Li-ion anodes. Samsung recently claimed a near doubling of the battery energy density with this technology. Silicon has theoretically 10 times the capacity of graphite anodes but it is brittle and expands on charging so the cycle life is short, but a graphene layer on the silicon surface accommodates for the volume expansion allowing the cells to reach high capacity without such degradation.

Electricity generation from solar and wind power is only half the equation. Electricity serves the market well for static energy use, it does not address mobile energy use, i.e. transportation. Again this is due to the limitations of current battery technology, although companies such as Telsa and Airbus are making great strides on that front [7] [8]. Even with rapid electrification of vehicles, the transition will take time and whilst about half all oil usage is within the transport sector, oil is also used in many other industries. One area however where oil is not used much is for electricity generation, so despite the oil price dropping to around $50 per barrel it will not likely effect solar and wind renewable prices since they do not compete.

Biofuels are an increasingly compelling response to the problem of rising oil price and depleting supply as these are considered carbon cycle neutral since the carbon that is released in combustion of fuels derived from biomass has been removed from the atmosphere during the plants life cycle. Biofuels are becoming a disruptive technology to the energy markets. Like many other disruptive innovations the technology has existed for a while, and the products whilst initially inferior to the incumbents (1st generation biofuels) are eventually enhanced by enabling technology (2nd and 3rd generation biofuels). Second generation biofuels such as ethanol derived from cellulosic sources (e.g. waste/residues from agricultural and forestry activities) in mobile/transport use can reduce greenhouse gases by up to 95% [9]. Nanocatalysts are currently in ongoing development to improve conversion efficiency and yield to enhance the process economics of biofuel production. Some of the preliminary work on nanocatalysts employed in thermochemical conversion processes are providing >100% yields in gasification of biomass and wastes, but time will tell whether these are commercially viable.

Hydrogen is a strong contender as an alternative fuel, with 1kg of H2 having the equivalent energy of 1 gallon of gasoline (2.8kg) and its only emissions being water vapour [10]. One possibly breakthrough application of graphene could be its permeability to protons which could improve the current fuel cell technology.

Breakthrough technologies are always fascinating as they inevitably leave a lasting impact on the world, often becoming responsible for changing the course of history in some significant way. Two major advances for instance were electric lighting and refrigeration. It is no surprise then that the illusive "killer application" as often mentioned with graphene has been capturing the public imagination recently.

In reality, innovation is more often incremental than radical. Radical advances are rare. There are several elements needed in the value chain to go from a material discovery to game-changing component or functional product. Also not all radical innovation is disruptive to the market. It can require certain conditions in the business environment to come together to allow for an underserved market to be addressed by the technology, or for an entirely new market to emerge. I hold out a lot of hope for graphene and other nanomaterials in this regard, since disruptive innovation is often brought about by an enabling technology. With its superlative properties and near limitless uses, graphene is surely to be regarded as an enabling technology, allowing for applications that could not otherwise have existed.

One important consideration to bear in mind is that disruptive innovation is rarely taken to market by existing competitors, it is often introduced by the outsider. This is perhaps not surprising as large companies may not want to release such tech - not wanting to cannibalize existing revenue streams. The scenario is portrayed with shear hyperbole the 1950's film "the Man in the White Suit" where a scientist working at a textile factory invents an indestructible fibre that is dirt repellent and cannot wear out. Management and workers at factory are enraged by the impact that the discovery will have on revenues and jobs. This may be science fiction, but step-changes in product performance and the threat to existing market dominance of incumbents are real phenomena.

I have heard frustration from scientists researching graphene that big companies do not put their hand in their pocket to invest in any significant R&D dollars on developing applications. Industry giants may all be very interested in seeing where the technology goes but not willing to be the first off the blocks, as they are unsure whether it could be a threat or an opportunity. There are also plenty of horror stories from academics whose only interest is to see the world become a better place who end up selling their IP to large multinationals only to find the technology never sees the light of day.

If the biggest businesses won't get on board with disruptive tech it will be the 4th biggest or 5th biggest in the market, or even more likely the small gazelles who come out of nowhere to bring the technology forwards. S&P 500 companies used to last on the index an average of 61yrs back in 1958 but today that figure is just 18yrs [11]. Companies are getting pushed out faster than before due to rapid changes in the competitive landscape introduced by technological disruption. Businesses need to be prepared to innovate to stay at the top.

In the first part of this article, I listed some technologies created out of this rapidly changing business environment that are giving consumers far more influence than ever before. A good example of this is the crowdfunding and crowdsourcing movement that has become responsible for producing some genuinely good products and services at incredibly low cost as customers are far more involved in the production process and the lines between consumers and producers begin to blur. At an industry sector level as well there is an increasing trend away from companies doing all the R&D in-house and far more emphasis on collaborative development and joint research with customers. Any sufficiently radical technological innovation brought about from nanotechnology stands a good chance of disrupting an existing market (or perhaps several markets). Could a major improvement in production efficiency from nanofactories achieve an abundance of certain goods or services in a similar way that the internet lead to disruption of the publishing industry, travel agencies, video rentals, postal services etc. ?

Some contemporary thinkers such as Jeremy Rifkin see this not just as mere possibility but as the extricable march towards an entirely new economic paradigm, where all goods and services become effectively free due to successive innovations bringing about zero marginal cost of production. As interesting as a Star Trek universe would be where money is no longer needed, it seems rather fanciful. Firstly by only looking at marginal cost you ignore the (often large) capital expenditures as part of initial setup costs that companies in production need. Secondly, to apply the same transformations for capital goods as to information goods is misleading, since there will always be some cost associated with production of material things even as it approaches zero it will never be negligible.

The loss of companies in those aforementioned sectors also gave way to online counterparts and jobs creation from those new successes. There will always be new frontiers of knowledge to expand, new technologies to exploit and new markets to develop.

[1] [2] . [3] [4] [5] [6] [7] [8] [9] [10] [11]