Published on November 25th, 2019 | by Steve Hanley
November 25th, 2019 by Steve Hanley
A report published in Science magazine by a team of scientists claims nanomaterials are the key to widespread, affordable energy storage. “Most of the biggest problems facing the push for sustainability can all be tied back to the need for better energy storage,” says Professor Yury Gogotsi of Drexel University and lead author of the paper.
“Whether it’s a wider use of renewable energy sources, stabilizing the electric grid, managing the energy demands of our ubiquitous smart and connected technology or transitioning our transportation toward electricity — the question we face is how to improve the technology of storing and disbursing energy. After decades of research and development, the answer to that question may be offered by nanomaterials.”
“The better we become at harvesting and storing energy, the more we’ll be able to use renewable energy sources that are intermittent in nature,” Gogotsi says. “Batteries are like the farmer’s silo — if it’s not large enough and constructed in a way that will preserve the crops, then it might be difficult to get through a long winter. In the energy industry right now, you might say we’re still trying to build the right silo for our harvest — and that’s where nanomaterials can help.”
Nanomaterials — More Surfaces For Electrons
According to Drexel University, the main thrust of battery research is finding better energy materials and combining them to store more electrons. Using a process called nanostructuring, researchers introduce particles, tubes, flakes, and stacks of nanoscale materials into the components of batteries, capacitors, and supercapacitors. Their shape and atomic structure can speed the flow of electrons — the heartbeat of electrical energy. Their enhanced surface area provides more resting places for the charged particles.
The effectiveness of nanomaterials allows scientists to rethink the basic design of batteries. Nanomaterials can permit future batteries that are lighter in weight and and smaller in size by eliminating metal foil current collectors that are necessary in conventional batteries.
“It is a very exciting time to work in the area of nanoscale energy storage materials,” says Ekaterina Pomerantseva, an associate professor in the Drexel College of Engineering and co-author of the study.
“We now have more nanoparticles available than ever — and with different compositions, shapes and well-known properties. These nanoparticles are just like Lego blocks, and they need to be put together in a smart way to produce an innovative structure with performance superior of any current energy storage device.
“What makes this task even more captivating is the fact that unlike Legos, it is not always clear how different nanoparticles can be combined to create stable architectures. And as these desired nanoscale architectures become more and more advanced, this task becomes more and more challenging, triggering the critical thinking and creativity of scientists.”
The leap from laboratory to commercial production is always a major hurdle for new technologies. Although the process of making lithium-ion battery cells has been greatly modified over time, the underlying manufacturing techniques go back to the roll-to-roll methods first invented to make audio and cassette tape 50 years ago. The researchers admit that capitalizing on the promise of nanomaterials will require some manufacturing processes to be updated. Such changes can cost a lot of money and those costs can slow the acceptance of new technology.
“The cost of nanomaterials compared to conventional materials is a major obstacle, and low-cost and large-scale manufacturing techniques are needed,” Gogotsi says. “But this has already been accomplished for carbon nanotubes with hundreds of tons manufacturing for needs of battery industry in China. Preprocessing the nanomaterials in this way would allow the use of current battery manufacturing equipment.”
The scientists also point out the use of nanomaterials could eliminate the need for certain toxic materials that have been key components in batteries. Mindful of the issues associated with current technology, they advocate for establishing environmental standards that will apply to the development of future nanomaterials.
“Whenever scientists consider new materials for energy storage, they should always take into account toxicity to humans and environment, also in case of accidental fire, incineration or dumping into waste,” Gogotsi said.
Addressing a warming planet in a meaningful way means eliminating the use of fossil fuels. The only way to do that is to replace them with renewable energy from the sun, the wind, flowing water, and geothermal resources. And the only way to take maximum advantage of those resources is the widespread use of energy storage techniques.
The research taking place today with nanomaterials may well provide the answer to an energy future that does not pollute the atmosphere and poison the environment.
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