What is nanotechnology? Well, it is all about small stuff. It started about ten years ago when scientists started experimenting with what they called "Bucky balls." These microscopic, molecule size materials were made entirely from carbon. They promised to be an interesting field of research and to this day have yielded some amazing advances for computing and science in general. These Bucky balls have some interesting properties. They are tiny - to give a scale of the size, a pinhead could hold over 3000 buck balls. They are incredibly strong and can conduct electricity too. Since that time, scientists and engineers have explored and developed novel and innovative uses for these miniscule Lego blocks. About two years ago, researchers managed to form these carbon nano-structures into what are now called nanotubes. They are long hollow chains of carbon molecules in a particular mesh structure. These engineered structures are considered some of the strongest and most robust materials known on earth. They can also be manipulated into useful structures. Scientists have used them to make molecular toilet bowls and other structures just to prove it can be done. All fun aside, researchers have found very useful ways to use and transform nano-tubes into nano-wires and other structures for industry. The following three technologies are some technologies already on the market or nearly to market that all of us can benefit from.
Current batteries use chemicals to store electrical charges. Unfortunately, the amount of charge batteries can hold is limited because the chemicals swell when energized. Also, after many charge-discharge cycles, the chemicals tend to wear out and become unusable. Nano-wire capacitors stand to change the way we store energy forever. Instead of using chemicals, these batteries would use bundles of miniscule nano-wires. Capacitors are limited by the surface area of the circuits storing the charge - nano-wires, being so small, have TONS of surface areas. Nano-wire batteries would be the same size as our current batteries but could store 6 times the charge and would never suffer from "memory" or wear out. Think about not having to charge your phone for weeks at a time? Don't need that charger for your next trip, now would you?
Nano-particle Solar Panels
Today, the world derives less than 10% of its power from renewable or green sources. Of that, most is hydroelectric. One reason for is that solar cells have been incredibly hard to make and prohibitively expensive. A new US company, Nanosolar, has developed a novel way of producing cheap, efficient, and flexible solar cells. They use nano-particles in an ink that is then printed on sheets of conductive foil. When compared to traditional photocells today, Nanosolar's cells produce pay for themselves in a few months where others take years to make back the money invested in them. These new cells come in two flavors, one geared towards utilities companies, the other to manufacturers. The manufacturer side is a flexible cell that can be cut to exact size and used on almost any surface. This means streetlights could power themselves, bike lights do not need replacement batteries, and your car roof can keep the car battery charged when the engine is not running.
Ever wished that you could put all of your walking and motion into better use? Well, an emerging technology promised to do just that. A new sort of fabric is in development that uses nano-wires woven into fabric with Kevlar casings and brushes (microscopic mind you). Like industrial generators, when these brushes move, they create static electricity with the nano-wires, which then conduct that energy to a battery or nano-wire capacitor. Next time you go for a run, you could charge your iPod so you will have tunes all through your work out. For those with prosthetics, nano-wire generators promise to provide power for more advanced electronics and motors thus improving quality of life. Just think, your next static shock could just power up your dead mobile phone or give an artificial heart a few more thumps.