Nanotech’s Outsized Energy Impact

I think Richard Smalley would have appreciated my article “Realizing Lithium Battery Potential” which headlines MIT today. The Rice University chemist – who shared the 1996 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for the discovery of soccer ball-shaped carbon cages called buckyballs – believed that nanotechnology could multiply the efficiency of the myriad energy devices upon which modern human society relies and, as such, had a central role to play in cleaning up our energy systems.

I relied on Smalley’s vision to wrap up a 2004 feature story for Tech Review – “Solar-Cell Rollout” – on plastic solar cells, which represent a radical, nanotech-enabled departure from the high-performance silicon crystal materials that still dominate the photovoltaics industry. Smalley’s belief in the rather anemic, flimsy plastic cells’ potential to someday be rooftop-ready lent crucial authority. (Doesn’t seem so crazy now. Just yesterday a German R&D agency decided the technology’s performance warranted a €2.5-million investment in improving its stability.)

In the same breath I passed along Smalley’s plea for bold investments in physical sciences research:

Nanotech could help solve the energy problem, Smalley contends, by providing new tools and materials that make widespread use of solar cells economically viable. But he believes it will take billions of dollars in funding and the focused efforts of the world’s top chemists and physicists to make that happen. So for the past two years, he has been crisscrossing the United States, evangelizing for nothing short of a modern-day Manhattan Project to use nanotech to deliver a sustainable energy system.

Smalley died from leukemia in 2005, but the vision he championed continues to spread and the advances he foresaw are being realized. My article on today presents nanotech-fueled advances that could multiply the energy storage capacity of lithium batteries. The immense potential of lithium batteries is the inspiration for today’s renaissance in electric vehicle development. But auto industry analysts say their cost will constrain EV expansion through 2020; see for example these uninspiring growth curves from PriceWaterhouseCoopers’ Calum MacRae. More potent batteries should help by extending EVs’ range and thus improving their value proposition.

Nanotech, by the way, is already improving the lithium battery. Boston-area technology developer A123, for example, coats its batteries’ positive electrodes with nanoparticles of iron-phosphate to boost safety and reduce cost relative to conventional laptop-style batteries. A123 is believed to have lost its bid to supply GM’s Chevy Volt plug-in hybrid vehicle, but as TechReview editor Kevin Bullis points out recently A123 has plenty of other EVs to bid on.

This post was created for Energywise, IEEE Spectrum’s blog on green power, cars and climate

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3 thoughts on “Nanotech’s Outsized Energy Impact

  1. Peter: Cui is right: The cathode is THE
    most important factor. I’m not sure the
    anode makes much difference from a weight/volume point of view, although cycle life MAY be much better with Si. Is everyone using FePO4 for the cathode? And are Li bridges still a short-circuit problem?

    P.S. Note new email address please.

  2. Nice to hear from you Pete. No, not everyone is using the FePO4 cathode commercialized by A123. There is still a very broad field of materials under development. For example LG Chem and its Compact Power subsidiary – the group expected to pick up the Volt contract – use a lithium manganese spinel.

    For a relatively readable review, see the UC Davis assessment of electric-vehicle batteries referenced at the top of my TR story.

  3. Could someone try to elaborate on “the battery problem”? Why is the energy storage ‘bottleneck’ so difficult. And how much effort is being channeled into solving it. Would we expect a breakthrough if enough money is thrown at it? Is it a physical problem (laws of physics say it can’t be solved) or is it an engineering problem?


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