Energy startups see plenty of room for innovation at the bottom

July 28 2008 / by Garry Golden / In association with Future
Category: Environment   Year: General   Rating: 8 Hot

By Garry Golden

What makes QuantumSphere and A123Systems two of the most innovative energy companies in the world?

Because they are investing in the future design of catalysts! And their strategy is to innovate at the nanoscale.

The Beginning of Nano

Physicist Richard Feynman is often credited with launching the ‘nanoscale’ era of engineering with his famous lecture ‘Plenty of Room at the Bottom’ at Caltech in 1959. Feynman described our future ability to manipulate individual atoms and eventually create complex mechanical structures made of the fundamental molecules.

Fifty years after Feynman’s lecture, researchers and startups are making significant progress in designing nanoscale structured materials that will have an enormous impact on all aspects of the energy industry from production, to storage to end use delivery.

What is disruptive about catalysts?

Simply put, catalysts help us get more output with less energy input. Catalysts speed up the reaction of photo-, chemical and electrochemical changes in everything from batteries, fuel cells, and solar cells, to the refining of coal, gasoline, diesel, and natural gas, and the production of hydrogen and biofuels. Catalysts also help to reduce the energy required to create plastics, biomaterials, pharmaceuticals, and fertilizer.

The rules of the energy industry game are being re-written by companies designing synthetic metal and carbon-based catalysts that change our notions of what is possible in the years ahead. Other companies are attempting to harness, or mimic, naturally occurring bio-catalysts that gracefully manipulate energy in all living things from algae/bacteria to plants to human beings.

Catalysts are the silent work horses of our modern world but you seldom, if ever, hear or see the word mentioned in mainstream conversations about energy. Yet they hold the key to unlocking human potential without draining the planet’s resources. Catalysts can help realize the vision of a world powered by cheap, abundant, clean energy. (Continued)

Whether we are trying to capture the power of sunlight, clean up gasoline, or capture carbon from coal plants, we will not arrive at this sustainable future without innovating at the nanoscale. Companies like QuantumSphere and A123 Systems understand that catalysts can enable disruptive change all aspects of the energy industry in the 21st century.

We are we coming from? And where are we going?

Since the end of World War II catalysts have been designed at the micro-scale (or millionth of meter). This was the era of DuPont, Dow and 3M. Micro-structured catalysts drove changes in agriculture by enabling cheap fertilizers for the emerging world’s ‘green revolution’, these class of catalysts gave birth to modern health sciences and pharmaceuticals, and also enabled the creation of inexpensive high performance polymer-based materials used in products from plastics to construction materials to clothing.

Why does this matter? Because this era of micro-scale design of catalysts is running out of room for innovation, and we are already stepping into a new era of science and engineering that will likely be equally disruptive.

Nanostructured Catalysts & the Age of Abundance

The ‘nanoscale’ refers to the world designed at a billionth of a meter. At this level molecules behave in very unique ways that lead to superior performance in basic energy systems.

Catalysts speed up the rate and lower the energy input required for a reaction to occur. At the nanoscale, we get more from less.

The best catalysts are those with high efficiencies on a very specific function, and remain structurally intact after the reaction has occurred.

In clean energy applications catalysts are used in removing sulfur from fossil fuels (e.g. diesel, coal), increasing the performance of solar cells, or decreasing the energy needed to make basic chemicals or materials. More output from less effort.

Catalysts can also lower the energy required to capture hydrogen from water via electrolysis, and improve the performance of batteries and fuel cells.

This is the world of nanoscale catalyst engineering, and the companies who master this new art form could rewrite the future history of energy in the next century.

Sustainability through Surface Area?

While oil powers our transportation systems, it is electrons that power most products and appliances in the modern world.

In addition to electricity, hydrogen is expected to grow as a carrier of electron energy. Startups like QuantumSphere are overcoming challenges to (distributed) production and (solid-state) storage. Their efforts could open up new ways for delivering electricity to the world.

QuantumSphere has just announced a nanostructured NiFe [nickel-iron]catalyst that lowers the cost of hydrogen production via electrolysis of water. The new electrode has a 1,000 fold improvement in surface area and could lead to creation of ‘energy appliances’ that sit in our garages and produce hydrogen from water during off-peak hours. Based on the high efficiency performance of this new catalyst there is less energy loss during the conversion from water to hydrogen/oxygen, putting to rest arguments against the ‘inefficiencies of hydrogen production.’

The electrode catalyst is also expected to find immediate applications in improving battery performance.

QuantumSphere understands one thing – shape matters! Catalyst performance is often based on geometry which dictates surface area. At the nanoscale the more surface area, the more exposure and potential for reactions to occur. This means less energy needed and higher output.

Nanoscale engineering is also helping to move the transportation sector beyond the combustion engine into an age of electric motors powered by a combination of batteries, fuel cells and capacitors.

A123Systems is a leading innovator in nanophosphate electrode-catalysts used in lithium ion batteries that are expected to find home in new classes of hybrid and battery-based electric motor vehicles.

A123 applies the same philosophy of innovation at the nanoscale to its core products and is quickly becoming an enabling company in the electricity world storage.

What should we expect from the ‘catalyst’ meme?

We have not run out of options or place to reinvent the energy industry. As Feynman said in 1959, there is still plenty of room at the bottom.

The Sun has not yet set on innovation in the energy sector. The pace of breakthrough research at the university level remains strong and healthy, and commercial innovation is occurring across a range of startups and incumbent corporations.

Researchers are working to understand basic science and in applied engineering on radical concepts such as ‘artificial photosynthesis’, and hybrid nano-bio systems where we build synthetic structures that trigger protein enzyme reactions.

Catalysts designed in the 21st century will surely breakdown more barriers, and open up new opportunities for energy entrepreneurs.

It is doubtful that catalysts will ever get credit for sustainability when it is much easier to simply refer to terms like ‘solar’, ‘batteries’, ‘hydrogen’, and ‘clean coal’.

But the next decade and beyond holds genuine promise for these tiny structures in changing the rules of the energy game and our sense of what is possible.

[Image Credit: Flickr CC- ghutchis]

Comment Thread (4 Responses)

  1. Feynman continues to be one of my favorite persons in the world, up there with Buckminster Fuller and Thomas Paine.

    Posted by: martymcfly   July 22, 2008
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  2. martymcfly… so we are on the same wavelenth! I just posted a piece called ‘Bucky Returns’ after watching a great YouTube interview from 1974. (And going to the Whitney exhibit last week in NYC)

    Check it out…

    I’m going to have to look more closely at Paine!! (Not on my radar) Thanks!

    Posted by: Garry Golden   July 23, 2008
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  3. I knew about catalysts in natural biological reactions, but I was unaware they are part nanotech.

    If the catalysts remain intact after a reaction is finished, is there a chance they could be contaminating to the enviroment?

    Posted by: Mielle Sullivan   July 25, 2008
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  4. good question Mielle —catalysts can be made of toxic and non-toxic elements but the structure themselves are not part of the output- so if molecules enter and are transformed by the catalyst they continue on while the catalyst remains at the reaction site. And yes catalysts can be studied/designed/synthesized at micro-scale (millionth of meter) or nanoscale (billionth) - for bio catalysts the scale is generally larger than inorganic compounds b/c of the size of naturally occurring systems. But at the nanoscale – shapes have less volume, more surface area which is great for reactions. So the performance can be exponentially better as you get smaller…. I think your point is well taken though—we still need to understand the implications of nanoscale particles/systems in our world—and this research is certainly underway. We’ll definitely post on that issue..!

    Posted by: Garry Golden   July 28, 2008
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