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If you've been admiring all those extravagant holiday lights, here's something to consider: fifty years from now, we may need as much as four times the energy we use today. As this ScienCentral News video reports, a Nobel Prize winner thinks nanotechnology could help.
Let There Be Light
By mid-century, the world's population is expected to swell to as many as ten billion people. They will all need energy. A major goal of nanotechnology research is figuring out ways to meet that enormous demand.
"Right now, the technology we have is hopelessly inadequate to handle the challenge that's in front of us," says Richard E. Smalley, Nobel Laureate and chemistry professor at Rice University. "At minimum, by the middle of the century, we'll need twice as much energy. Luckily, this earth is bathed in energy. There's solar energy; there's nuclear energy; there's geothermal energy, the heat of the earth. There's plenty of energy out there, but we do not have the technology to produce it, distribute it, store it" so that it can be available to all in an affordable way. A major part of the problem is that today's power lines lose energy as they transmit it.
Smalley believes that "we now live in a generation that needs to make a new revolution in energy," and he is convinced that revolution will come from new materials that nanotechnology could make possible. "We need…virtually miraculous developments in materials and in ways of transmitting and storing energy," he says. "Every one of those developments almost certainly will happen on the nanometer scale because you have to fundamentally affect the behavior of materials. That's where the atoms live."
Smalley won the 1996 Nobel Prize in chemistry for discovering a tiny, soccer-ball-shaped structure of carbon atoms nicknamed a buckyball. The molecule, officially called "buckminsterfullerene," is named after architect R. Buckminster Fuller because of its resemblance to the geodesic dome Fuller invented. A buckyball is made up of sixty carbon atoms, arranged into hexagons and hooked together in a ball about a nanometer, or a billionth of a meter, in size.
A buckytube. image: Rice University
Fullerenes have turned out to be an entire class of new structures. Now Smalley is working with carbon nanotubes, tiny relatives of buckyballs which he dubs "buckytubes." Carbon nanotubes are rolls of sheets of graphite, the same substance in pencils, made up of carbon atoms in the same hexagonal pattern as buckyballs. Buckytubes look like miniscule tubes of chicken wire, capped at either end with half a buckyball. Buckytubes are light and flexible, but also surprisingly strong and tough. At nanoscale, in the form of a single sheet, graphite is one of the strongest known substances, because the bonds among its atoms of carbon are so strong. Smalley is confident that buckytubes could have "tremendous impact on our surroundings because these tubes are conductors of electricity and heat."
Smalley thinks that conducting fibers made of buckytubes, arranged end-to-end and in parallel rows like railroad tracks, could carry energy much more easily and affordably than today's power lines. "Are we going to take energy all the way from here to Dallas in a single buckytube? Well, no, it's just a nanometer in diameter. But suppose right next to it there's another buckytube. Another identical railroad track. An electron can move down this other railroad track, and just hop to the other track and keep going." Since buckytubes are much lighter than copper, steel, or aluminum, the power lines they could be woven into would be thinner and stronger.
But Smalley admits that working with something so tiny is not easy . "We have to learn how to put the atoms just where we want and make exactly that particular tube, in vast amounts, hundreds of thousands of tons, for the price of only a couple of dollars a pound."
Right now, Rice University is building a new Carbon Nanotechnology Laboratory, where Smalley is working on making buckytubes to order, size-wise. "Our aim is to make buckytubes be all they can be," he says. And he prefers to speak of "when we succeed"– not "if."