Will Nanotech Change Our Energy Future?

Lynne Kiesling

I’d have to say the simple answer is “yes”, although the nuances of those changes are a lot more difficult to predict. Ronald Bailey writes at Reason about a recent nanotech conference he attended that made some predictions about how nanotech is likely to affect our lives in 2025. Of course, such long-range predictions are fraught with error and uncertainty, but it still behooves us to think about the possible.

One prediction that Ron describes is that the generation and distribution of energy will differ dramatically in the future because of nanotech applications:

The sturdy plastic panels are composed of “failsoft” nanocells that automatically reroute electric flows if the panels are cut, nailed, or damaged. As evidence that such panels are possible, Bruns cited the work of Konarka, a company developing cheap solar panels that come in rolls like Saran Wrap.

One thing we talk about a lot in electric power is that in comparison with telecom, electric power has never had the disruptive technology that the cell phone has been. Sure, we’ve had the combined-cycle gas turbine engine (as one of my co-authors describes it, a jet engine mounted on a platform!), but that was only disruptive in one part of the value chain. Nanotech has the potential (granted, the long run potential) to be a disruptive technology in many parts of the value chain — generation, transmission, distribution, devices.

In addition, as a technology that is by its nature distributed and automatically adaptive, nanotech has the potential to contribute to the “self-healing grid” that we’ve heard so much about since last August’s blackout.

Every once in a while I’ll sound a cautionary note that if our incumbent government-granted monopoly utilities do not adapt to such technological changes as these, we’ll get to the point where we have a system that innovated around them and made them obsolete. If I’m a utility shareholder I say better to hop on the train than to have it steamroll you, much as the telecoms finally concluded with cellular and wireless. But few utilities are this dynamist in their thinking.

Arnold Kling discusses the Bailey article and says that nanotech makes him more sanguine about the future:

I am becoming increasingly bullish on materials science and nanotechnology as solutions to problems of energy conservation, energy production, and health care.

On a related note, Randall Parker at Futurepundit describes advances in nanotech for low-pressure hydrogen storage.


One thought on “Will Nanotech Change Our Energy Future?

  1. “One thing we talk about a lot in electric power is that in comparison with telecom, electric power has never had the disruptive technology that the cell phone has been.”

    I’m curious (not critical) about your definition of disruptive technologies. I would argue that the technology of cell phones was made possible by Marconi. Getting the OSS platforms, battery lifes, radio spectrum, product marketing processes was the trick. Is there anything on its own that made the cell phone a disruptive technology?

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