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Nanotechnology Sees Applications in Fuel Cells and Solar Power/Micro Fuel Cells to Power Mobile Devices, Business and Industry Trends Analysis

Potential methods of generating energy with nanotechnology are nearly boundless, and some applications are creating synergies between plastics and nanotech.  However, the most immediately promising possibilities are for solar power and fuel cell power.  Michael Graetzel, a Swiss scientist, invented a new kind of solar cell that uses dye molecules and titanium dioxide.  This enables manufacturers to place highly efficient and versatile solar cells in flexible plastic sheets, rather than the traditional glass and silicon cells.

A new development in nanosolar technology is multi-junction solar cells, which were initially exhibited by researchers from the Imperial College, London at the Royal Society Summer Science Exhibition in 2009 in the UK.  These cells layer on top of each other, with each layer capturing energy from a particular color in the spectrum of sunlight.  Converting energy from the entire spectrum may result in the ability to turn as much as 50% of the energy in sunlight into electricity compared to the 20% or so that is gleaned using conventional solar cells.  Solar Junction, a San Jose, California-based company , specializes in the technology.  In 2015, the firm announced the development of a four-junction (4J) cell for use in outer space.

Another way that nanotechnology may impact solar cells is the use of quantum dots instead of silicon.  Quantum dots, which are nanoscale semiconductor crystals, could significantly lower the cost of photovoltaic cells.  In 2006, Victor Klimov of Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico demonstrated that quantum dots have the capability to react to light and store energy more efficiently than silicon.  A record-breaking solar cell was announced by a collaboration of researchers from Penn State University, the University of Toronto and King Abdullah University of Science and Technology in 2011, which utilizes inorganic ligands that bind to quantum dots and take up less space.  The result is significant increases in efficiency.  Another breakthrough occurred in 2013, when scientists at the University of Toronto’s Engineering program found a new technique for light absorption in quantum dots which shows a possible 35% increase in the technology’s efficiency in the near-infrared spectral region.  Overall, this could translate to an 11% solar power conversion efficiency increase, making quantum dot photovoltaics even more attractive as an alternative solar cell technology.  Although scientists are years away from manufacturing usable quantum dot solar cells on a commercial scale, the technology has been established.

Meanwhile carbon nanohorns, a variation of carbon nanotubes, are being used in fuel cells to make them lighter, cheaper and more efficient.  SFC Energy AG (, formerly Smart Fuel Cell AG, based in Germany; NEC, the giant Japanese electronics firm; and several other companies are creating such fuel cells for use in mobile phones and laptops, as well as traffic signals, remote sensors and metering systems.  As these fuel cells become more compact, powerful and longer lasting, many other applications will become available for both mobile and set devices.  Toshiba released the first commercial fuel cell for mobile equipment, the Dynario.  A direct-methanol fuel cell (DMFC), the Dynario uses a combination of methanol and ambient oxygen to create electricity.  On one methanol cartridge (which takes about 20 seconds to load into the unit), the Dynario can charge two mobile phones or devices such as MP3 players.  The product was available in limited release (only 3,000 units) in Japan, and retailed for about $325.

As of 2015, scientists at MIT and Tsinghua University in China were working on a rechargeable lithium-ion battery with improved performance.  Researchers found that as electrodes charge and recharge, they expand and shrink in size during the process, which requires reforming the “skin” surrounding the electrode, thereby consuming lithium.  The MIT-China team found that by creating nanoparticles with a static skin or shell made of titanium dioxide and an interior “yolk” made of aluminum with room to expand and shrink, batteries could yield greater capacity and power.  The technology has the potential to deliver three times the capacity of batteries built with graphite.  Titanium and aluminum are also cheaper.



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