Regulators across the country are relying on conservation-potential assessments to guide their policy decisions. Models based on macroeconomic analysis, end-use forecasting and accounting...
Energy Tech's Quantum Leap
Tomorrow's utility technology may be revolutionized at the molecular level.
Revolutionary changes have swept through the utility industry more than once. Although the industry often receives criticism for being slow to adapt, the fact is that utilities are continually building and rebuilding their systems and strategies around changing conditions. AAAAA AASuccess in utility planning often hinges on big things-like market restructuring or an upheaval on Wall Street. It can also depend on little things-like a piece of software or a metering device. And sometimes it depends on tiny things-in the case of nanotechnology, things that didn't exist yesterday, but that just might spawn a revolution tomorrow.
The science of nanotechnology is no longer restricted to ivory-tower research labs. Nanostructures have already entered the marketplace, on electronics store shelves and even in the fabric of stain-resistant khakis. And now, nanotechnology is poised to bring radical new products to the utility industry-products that could revolutionize the way power is generated and delivered.
If the term "revolution" seems like hype, consider how the transmission system might change if power lines a centimeter in diameter could conduct a terawatt of power with virtually no resistance. Consider how the economics of distributed generation might change if fuel cell prices fell by an order of magnitude, and hydrogen could be produced cheaply on site?
Or what if the cost of solar cells fell by 98 percent? How might that affect power demand in the sun belt?
While most nanotechnology concepts are still in the lab, many are moving quickly toward commercialization. Solar-cell manufacturers, for example, are already designing factories that could begin spinning out next-generation photovoltaic (PV) materials within just a few years.
Given the technology's rapid progress, utilities should carefully consider its implications for their future business strategies. In that context, Fortnightly presents a brief tutorial on nanotechnology and the promise it holds for the industry.
"Nanotechnology is the art and science of making stuff that does stuff on a nanometer scale," says Dr. Richard Smalley, whose discovery of the "buckyball," a new form of carbon (carbon-60), earned him the 1996 Nobel Prize in chemistry. That work led to the development of carbon nanotubes, cylindrical molecules with mechanical and electrical properties that would challenge the imagination of even the buckyball's namesake genius, the late Buckminster Fuller. These buckytubes boast a tensile strength far greater than steel and surpass the electrical conductivity of copper or silicon, but at one-sixth copper's weight.
Such facts attract plenty of headlines-not to mention hype. But Smalley says nanotechnology isn't really a new science; rather, it's an increasing ability on the part of chemists, physicists, and others in the hard sciences to manipulate materials at an atomic level.
He cites as one example modern engineered polymers like polypropylene, Kevlar, and block polymers. "These are highly engineered to do what they do. They are what they are because of putting atoms exactly where you want them to be," he says.
Closer to home, Smalley says high-temperature superconductors are an example of nanotechnology. "The supercurrent does what it does because of precise layering