When people speak of nanotechnology, they usually think of scientists in labs creating little robots to do their bidding. Popular science fiction movies like, I, Robot, and G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra have helped propagate this mentality with their use of miniature robots as destructive forces. Thus, nanotechnology has been much misunderstood in its relatively short life. No one outside of the scientific community knows what it really is.
Fig. 1 Nanomites in G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra
In this blog, we plan to shed some light on nanotechnology. By getting to know it better, we will see if it is beneficial or detrimental to society. In this way, we gain a better appreciation for nanotechnology, its applications, and its impact on our world.
We begin by defining what nanotechnology is. Nanotechnology can be broken down to 2 key concepts: “nano” and “technology”. Nano is defined as the one-billionth or 1×10-9 of a quantity. Technology is the practical application of scientific knowledge. Taken together, nanotechnology is thus the application of scientific concepts at the one-billionth level. This refers usually to manipulation at the molecular level. In doing so, new properties of matter are being explored and this opens up a new aperture in technological applications.
In order to better illustrate such technology, we have chosen to explore a specific system developed by scientists at the Institute of the Institute of Energy Technology (INTE) which is affiliated to the Universitat Politècnica de Catalunya: BarcelonaTech (UPC), the University of Auckland (New Zealand), and King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (Saudi Arabia). According to the article, they have found a way “to produce hydrogen from water and sunlight in a way that is clean, renewable and more cost-effective than other methods.”
A new photocatalyst has been developed by researchers that produces hydrogen from water and sunlight. The catalyst consists of gold nanoparticles and titanium oxide crystals. This kind of process would somehow be the same with the regular solar panels of today, the main difference is that with the catalyst of nanoparticles it would be able to maximize the use of natural sunlight compared to only the ultraviolet rays. They do this with the use of a 3D photonic crystal that captures the visible light when the gold nanoparticles resonate. This kind of process that produces hydrogen from the photochemical process would eventually become a more productive and efficient way of collecting power from hydrogen since it would only require water and solar energy.
Fig. 2 Diagram of how the system works
This research is just one of the many ways of producing clean and renewable sources of energy. With the depletion of our natural resources like fossil fuels, eventually we would require more ways to answer the increasing consumption of energy in the world. Furthermore, alternative energy sources are deemed to be cleaner than fossil fuels as they do not release emissions that are currently known to be detrimental to the environment. Nanotechnology has created opportunities to alternative sources of energy.
This breakthrough provides new hope in the field of renewable energy. While previous technologies proved too inefficient to truly challenge the gas-guzzling giants, this system could be the first step to feasible large-scale application of renewable energy. The researchers have already breached the 5% mark of conversion rate of solar energy into hydrogen. This is the entry point at which the goal of sustainable energy is deemed attainable.
All in all, nanotechnology is still a new frontier that needs to be explored further in order to be understood. While we see many opportunities for growth, we also need to be cautious as not to be blindsided by unforeseen consequences. Nanotechnology is still a fledgling discipline and as such, its after-effects, especially on our environment, will not be felt until some time in the future. However, we believe that proper risk management can abate whatever potential crises nanotechnology brings. With proper attention to detail, discoveries such as this have the potential to change life as we know it. The future of nanotechnology is as bright as we want it to be.
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Universitat Politècnica de Catalunya (UPC). “Researchers design new catalyst to produce
hydrogen from water, sunlight.” ScienceDaily, 13 Dec. 2013. Web. 20 Jan. 2014. <http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2013/12/131213093310.htm>