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The commercial applications of nanotechnology in the field of energy include: photovoltaic cells and their components; machinery for the production of thin films; measuring and testing devices; nanotubes and particles for use in capacitors and batteries; and nano-materials for alternative energy production. The materials being used are mainly nanotubes, nanoparticles and nanocoatings.
Nanotechnology can be used to make solar cells more efficient and reduce their cost. Silicon is the main raw material for most photovoltaics (PV) and comprises 10-20% of their cost. When photons impact the silicon they cause electrons to become free to move thereby generating an electric current. Commercial versions of solar cells are around 22% efficient at converting sunlight into electricity. By reducing the thickness of the silicon from around 200 micrometres to dimensions of nanometres, material costs are significantly reduced but the efficiency of the cells tends to suffer.
Densely packed nano-structures can be used to create thin anti-reflective coatings, which can be shaped so that they capture the light and make it resonate, bouncing around inside the solar cell. The probability that the light photon will impact an electron and knock it loose is increased making the cell more efficient in converting sunlight to electricity.
As well as increasing efficiency, the thinner dimensions of the nanotechnology-based solar cells makes them more flexible and less rigid. They are therefore easier to transport, potentially even rolled up, and to install, and can potentially be shaped to suit a variety of geometries.
Nanotechnology is providing solutions to the high cost and short running times of batteries for electric vehicles and consumer electronics. Lithium (Li) ion batteries are one of the most common types of batteries being used today – in consumer electronics such as mobile phones and laptops, but also as a replacement for lead acid vehicle batteries. Nanotechnology offers the potential to improve the performance of Li-ion batteries by increasing their capacity and their lifetime (enabling more charge and discharge cycles to take place) and reducing their weight. Super-capacitors are commonly used in commercial power storage applications such as light-rail, electric vehicles and power grids. Carbon nanotubes (CNTs) are being used to improve their performance in terms of capacitance, charge and discharge rates, lifetime and cost.