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Wednesday, March 02, 2005

Nanotechnology and the Future of the Energy Industry

Yesterday, two separate news items highlighted the growing importance of nanotechnology to the energy industry. The first was a short news item announcing that Nanosys and signed an agreement with Sharp to use its proprietary nanostructure technology in fuel cell technology for portable consumer electronic devices like laptops and cell phones. The second item was an article discussing Nanosolar’s use of nanotechnology to produce light, flexible, durable and highly efficient solar cells.

It is not my contention to state that Nanosys’ agreement with Sharp guarantees that Sharp’s fuel cell technology will win in the marketplace. In fact, NEC is scheduled to soon release its own nanotechnology-enabled fuel cell technology. Rather, it is to point out to the manufacturers of laptop and cell phone batteries that the development should be heeded by their industry because if either Sharp, NEC or some other as-yet-unidentified competitor can design, manufacture and distribute a fuel cell that will allow electronic devices to operate for a longer period of time and be more easily recharged (actually refueled), the battery industry could be seriously imperiled.

Similarly, while Nanosolar’s announcement that it “might” be able to produce electricity in the range of five cents per kilowatt needs to be viewed with some caution (today’s best solar cells can generate a kilowatt for between 20 and 30 cents), what should not be dismissed by the energy industry—particularly the electrical utility industry—is the relevance of nanotechnology-enabled solar cells.

Solar energy currently makes up for about only one percent of the world’s energy needs. The market for solar power is, however, growing at 40 percent a year and Nanosolar’s claim that it’ll be able to “paint” self-assembling nanomaterials directly onto cars, buses and even rooftops (a development which would allow individuals and businesses to essentially generate their own power free of the existing electrical grid), could throw this figure into hyper drive.

If Nanosolar can’t produce on its promise to deliver solar cell at a competitive price (coal can produce a kilowatt for between 7-10 cents), my guess is that either Nanosys or Konarka—two other companies working on flexible solar cell technology—will.

For those who are doubtful, Nanosys has an agreement with Matsushita to begin producing its flexible solar cells in 2007, while Konarka has received funding from both ChevronTexaco and France’s largest electricity producer—Electricite de France—to develop its own nano-enabled solar cells. Both companies have also received sizeable grants (in excess of $10 million) from the U.S. government to develop their respective technologies.

It is possible—indeed even likely—that the precise timing of when these cheap, flexible solar cells will reach the market may off by a few years; I do believe the electrical utility industry will be adversely affected by nano-enabled flexible solar cells unless they begin, today, in assessing how they might be able to be incorporate the technology into their existing mix of energy-producing sources.