What if a wire one billionth of a meter long could be the solution to harness the energy potential of the sun? What if tens of billions of such wires could be produced each second? Nanotechnology is fast providing answers to many questions that surround the modern day quest for energy efficiency. Scarcity and the lack of security surrounding our primary sources of energy have been driving the scientific community to reconsider utilization of resources. Nanotechnology is proving to be an integral part of this innovation, specifically in the field of solar energy.
Nanotechnology has brought forth a number of breakthroughs in solar energy technology that maximizes efficiency and reduces costs. For instance, traditional silicon panels have a high reflection rate that can reduce the amount of sunlight absorbed due to surface wastage. However, dye-sensitized solar cells that consist of a highly porous layer of nanoparticles can increase surface absorption. They are also more flexible than traditional solar cells, work in higher temperatures and operate in low-lighting conditions. Future research could see a further increase inefficiency, allowing implementation in spacecrafts by incorporating a mixture of organic and inorganic materials, to make ultra-lightweight and flexible solar cells. The higher absorption rate means that lesser materials are required on each panel, thus reducing production costs.
Nanostructured solar cells are viable for production at scale, owing to their print-like manufacturing processes. Research studies suggest that the solar cells of the future could even be painted onto surfaces. Furthermore, flexible solar panels can easily be integrated into buildings which could encourage household adoption by reducing installation costs. By increasing the generation and storage capabilities of solar panels, manufacturers can sell more valuable, high-margin products. Low cost solutions that help reduce technology and infrastructure gaps are especially valuable to governments that do not already have an established grid. Targeted implementation of such nanomaterial energy solutions could prove to be a valuable part of rural development plans.
Industry researchers suggest that nanomaterial implementation can increase solar panel efficiency to 50%, a significant increase from the current 20%, which is reflective of the benefits innovation in this field promises.
Nanotechnology-based systems are also being developed to address energy storage concerns. Hydrogen, the primary product of the solar energy generation process, is difficult to store because of safety concerns due to high pressure. Composite nanomaterials solve this problem by facilitating the construction of lightweight tanks with high pressure ratings. This ensures the safe storage of converted solar energy that can then be used by industry and households alike.
Other sources of energy are also seeing an increased efficiency with nanotechnology. Wind energy generation levels are directly proportional to the square of the turbine blade length. Nanocomposite materials with higher stiffness-to-weight ratios enable the construction of more durable blades which could encourage progress of wind energy technology. With the help of nanomaterials, a wide variety of industries have access to energy solutions that reduce costs and increase adoption of renewable energy.
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