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Energy Tech's Quantum Leap

Tomorrow's utility technology may be revolutionized at the molecular level.
Fortnightly Magazine - November 1 2003

Smalley thinks there is a high likelihood that when an armchair nanowire is made, it will have conductivity similar to copper. Even if the fiber is only half as conductive as carbon, he says, the one thing he knows for sure is what it will weigh: one-sixth the density of copper.

"If we can make [such a fiber] cheaply, it would be the logical replacement for every high-voltage transmission line in the world," Smalley says. He points out that most high-volatage lines now are aluminum, not because it's cheaper or more conductive than copper, but because of its lighter weight.

With an armchair nanowire, Smalley says, transmission lines could be much bigger in diameter and could take a larger amount of current through the same right-of-way. "That would be enough to make you re-string your cables," he notes in a bit of understatement. In addition, he thinks that his armchair nanowire would probably be good enough for use in AC settings. The cable could be insulated and grounded, and still have plenty of strength/weight ratio. And there would be no hum in such a wire, since there would be little resistance. "You wouldn't have hum, corona, RF losses, or worries about radiation fields in power lines," Smalley says.

Yet even if the technology can be proven in the lab, there remains the necessity to make the process work commercially. Smalley believes the cost cannot exceed $5/lb. for armchair nanowire, if it is to work commercially. He believes that goal is possible. Some types of nanofibers are being produced now commercially, at a cost of $1,000 to $100/lb. Those tubes come in a range of diameters, types, and lengths, but as Smalley points out, "it a start."

While Smalley is confident that an economical process for producing armchair tubes will be developed, he isn't yet chasing industry money. "Until we can get the first length made, it's premature for industry to invest," he says bluntly.

Yet if and when he does make a length of armchair nanowire, don't be surprised to see the world beating a path to Richard Smalley's door.

Cheap PVs for All

Historically, solar-electric cells, a.k.a. photovoltaics (PV), have played a diminutive role in supplying the world's electricity. The reason, of course, is cost. A watt of PV capacity costs about $90, compared with $5 for a kilowatt of diesel-engine capacity.

Nanotechnology, however, might be changing all of that.

"Our goal is to produce PV materials for less than $1 per watt," says Russell Gaudiana, Ph.D., vice president of research and development for Konarka Inc. in Lowell, Mass. "We have demonstrated every part of the process, and we have the technology in our hands to do it."

Nanotechnology is on the verge of revolutionizing the way PV materials are manufactured-eliminating the need for slow and costly vacuum deposition, and reducing costs by an order of magnitude or more.

"What nanotechnology provides is processability," says Stephen Empedocles, Ph.D., vice president of business development for Nanosys Inc. in Palo Alto, Calif. "We've changed the form factor of the inorganic material so it