Photo by Werner Slocum, NREL

New researcher to improve solar power and capture energy from different sources


United KingdomA bacterial cell is nearly 1,000 times larger than a poppy seed from your breakfast bagel. That little cell is around 1,000 times larger than the chemical structures being developed and studied by National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) experts in order to alter how humans use energy.

The world becomes strange at such a little scale. Some familiar forces, like as gravity, have little effect, whereas other phenomena, such as quantum waveforms, have a significant impact. Even something as simple as the surface area-to-volume ratio of a particle changes tremendously, with equally dramatic consequences.

Many NREL researchers are discovering (or producing) crucial materials for tomorrow’s energy systems in this strange region.

This adaptability, or “tunability,” is critical to the NREL’s nanomaterials research. Researchers can precisely manipulate the properties of nanoscale particles and structures by modifying their size, shape, or composition. Materials can also be manufactured to meet a certain function by combining structures with the right combination of attributes.

Semiconductor quantum dots, for example, may be adjusted to emit specific colors with approximately 100 percent efficiency. This means that quantum dots-enabled TVs and screens can deliver improved color fidelity without compromising brightness or consuming more energy. You’ve probably seen nanomaterials in action if you’ve seen a QLED or an OLED TV. Researchers at NREL want to use comparable, or perhaps unique, features in a variety of applications.

Obtaining more energy from more sources

It comes as no surprise that NREL researchers are investigating various methods of capturing the sun’s energy using nanomaterials. Nanomaterials could allow solar cells to be swiftly made from more common, less expensive materials in the next generation of photovoltaic systems. Thin sheets of lead-sulfide or perovskite quantum dots, for example, can be easily manufactured into a solar cell. These materials can also be “tuned” to absorb different wavelengths of light, making them attractive candidates for lower-cost, higher-efficiency multi-layer solar cells.

Nanomaterials can also operate as potent catalysts to drive various reactions, thanks to their exceptionally high surface-area-to-volume ratio. Layers of semiconductors as thin as three atoms thick, for example, can collect sunlight and use it to power the generation of hydrogen gas or other solar fuels.

Sunlight isn’t the only source of energy that nanomaterials can harness. According to the United States Energy Information Agency, more than 60% of the energy utilized for power generation in the United States is lost as heat. Waste heat can be converted into power using thermoelectric devices. While thermoelectrics are already used in nuclear batteries, such as those found on some spacecraft, nanoscale architectures may make these devices more efficient and cost-effective, allowing them to draw heat from more terrestrial sources.

Researchers at NREL are also investigating electronic ratchets, which are devices that can harvest radio frequency signals or electrical noise to generate an ordered electrical current. Carbon nanotubes, for example, are helping to enhance the efficiency of these devices, providing a completely new approach of distributed energy production.

Memory transistors in computer transistors

NREL’s nanoscale research extends beyond energy and chemical manufacturing, with the goal of revolutionizing computers (and how much energy they consume).

Neuromorphic computing makes use of electronic components that are modeled after neurons in human brains, as opposed to traditional computers’ simple, on-off transistors. Neuromorphic computers could ultimately become more efficient and powerful than today’s computers, which are being constrained by the size of transistors, by merging a computer’s processing and memory storing capabilities into a single component—a “memristor.” Researchers at NREL are working to produce better materials for memristors, with nanomaterials playing a key role.

Nanomaterials are also helping NREL with its quantum computing research. At NREL, all nanomaterials research is supported by a strong commitment to basic materials research. While several nanomaterials are nearing commercialization and practical applications, many others will require years of intensive research to fully understand and apply.

Many NREL researchers are excited by the prospect of new, possibly unimagined achievements.