The coming carbon nanotube energy revolution

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Carbon nanotubes are a new technology that may revolutionise not only the way we produce energy, but also our entire way of life, says Sean Hurley from Social Rebirth.

The internal combustion engine

The internal combustion engine has been with us for a very long time; since 1680 to be exact, when a Dutch physicist, Christian Huygens, designed an engine that could be driven by gunpowder. Twenty-seven years later, Francois Isaac de Rivaz from Switzerland designed and built a car for his combustion engine that was fuelled by a mixture of oxygen and hydrogen. His design proved to be very unsuccessful. Samuel Brown, an English engineer, adapted an old steam engine to burn gas in 1824, thirty-four years later Jean Joseph Étienne Lenoir invented a electric spark-ignition internal combustion engine fuelled by coal gas. In 1873, an American engineer by the name of George Brayton developed an unsuccessful two-stroke kerosene engine, considered the first safe and practical oil engine. By 1876, the first successful two-stroke engine was invented by Sir Dougald Clerk. In 1885, Gottlieb Daimler invented what was considered the prototype of the modern gas engine.

On the 29th of January 1886, Karl Benz received the first patent for a gas-fuelled car. The first commercial car production began in 1889 by Panhard & Levassor and was followed closely by Peugeot in 1891. It would be another 17 years – in October of 1908 – before Henry Ford would revolutionise the car industry, through mass production techniques that would move the automobile away from being a luxury item and make it essential means of transportation for the ordinary man.

Electric engines

There was a time when the electric engine was the engine of choice for automobiles. In 1897 was seen the first commercial EV (Electric Vehicle) application, when a fleet of New York City taxies built by the Electric Carriage and Wagon Company were put on the streets. Indeed, during 1899 and 1900, electric cars outsold all other types of cars. They were clean, quiet, easy to start and were marketed as the best car for women.

Production of EVs peaked in 1912, though they were popular even into the 1920s. In the end, the short range of the electric vehicle brought about its demise. Better road networks that connected cities required longer ranges than the battery vehicles could provide. Added to this, Texas crude oil brought a reduction to the price of gas, making it affordable for the average consumer; the invention of the electric starter in 1912 replaced the old hand crank; and the mass production of the Ford Motor Company reduced the cost of gas powered vehicles. In 1912, an EV was selling for $1750, while its gas powered counterpart was a much more affordable $650.

Renewable energy

While the fundamental downfall of the EV in the early 1900s was due to inadequate battery life, resulting in less than desirable range for the vehicles, what we have been left with is an extremely high dependency, as a society, on fossil fuels and oil in particular. The last 100 years, however, have seen profound innovations in both electrical storage and generation. With research and development in, but not limited to wind power, solar energy, geothermal energy, wave power and tidal power. While all of these forms of energy production have clear advantages to burning fossil fuels, they also have their downfalls.

Wind turbines of course rely on wind to generate power and wind fluctuates in strength, meaning there will be times when the turbine produces no energy. Each generator can produce the same amount of noise as a family car travelling at 70 km/h.

Solar power needs sunlight so, of course, during the night no power is produced. Solar cells create D.C. power that needs to be converted to A.C. power costing energy for the conversion. Silan gas, used to deliver silicon molecules to a surface, explodes on contact with air and has been involved in 10 deaths in the last 20 years in the solar cell production industry.

Geothermal plants need a location that offers suitable hot rocks at an easy to drill to depth without having rock that is too difficult to drill through above. Locations may temporarily run out of steam, this can last for several months and means the plant is producing no energy during this time. Hazardous gases and minerals can be released, such as hydrogen sulphide, arsenic, mercury and ammonia.

Wave power capable of generating 1000 MW of electricity would require just over 20 kilometres of coastline in a high energy wave area, such as the Pacific Northwest. It can disturb or disrupt marine life. There is great variety in the strength of waves over a year, month, day and this makes it difficult to predict how much energy a wave power plant can produce.

Tidal power has a considerable effect on the ecosystem, such as increased levels of pollution, decreased levels of salinity in the basin and increased levels of sediment, due to decreased levels of water volume exchange between the basin and sea. Power is only generated when tides flow in or out of the basin.

None of these technologies seem capable of decreasing our need for fossil fuels to power our transportation any time soon. In order to reduce our dependence on crude oil significantly, we will require either serious advancements in our battery storage capabilities, or a dramatic new technological innovation. That innovation may have just arrived.

The carbon nanotube revolution

In 1991, a Japanese scientist, Sumio Iijima, discovered carbon nanotubes — cylindrical structures with a diameter of as little as 1 nm and lengths up to several centimetres. They are the strongest known material, are pliable not brittle, and are used to strengthen composite materials. They also have outstanding electrical properties, being 1000 times more conductive than copper wire. Mark Bissett from Flinders University’s School of Chemical and Physical Sciences has, using carbon nanotubes, created a transparent solar cell that can be sprayed onto windows.

Dr Bissett explains the sheer simplicity of the invention:
“When light shines on the cell, electrons are generated within the carbon nanotubes and these can be used to power electrical devices, it’s basically like tinting the windows except they’re able to produce electricity, and considering office buildings don’t have a lot of roof space for solar panels, it makes sense to utilize the many windows they do have instead.”

Now think of the implications — not only cars that run on what is essentially free energy from sunlight but, on a social level in general, no longer needing large centralized power companies, no longer needing large power grids. Just free, clean, renewable energy from nothing more than sunlight.

While you are thinking about that, consider this: what happens to employment or, more to the point, unemployment? With this type of technology in place, how many people will find themselves in a position of having no job? Employees of power generation companies, electrical distribution companies, petroleum companies, the combustion engine industry, the battery industry, and every single company and industry that services those industries will ve almost completely redundant. Not to mention the incredible reduction in our need for oil. As a direct result of this kind of mass unemployment, how will our economic model – that is based entirely on exchanging labour for purchasing power in order to consume products to keep everyone employed – survive? How can it continue?

It cannot.

We as a society will be forced to make fundamental changes to the way we operate. We will be forced to identify what is, and what is not, important. Forced to acknowledge the redundancy of our current modus operandi, we have the technology and understandings of our natural world that will enable us to lead free, healthy lives. To allow us to invest time and energy into the things that matter, our families, our friends, and each other.

Buckle you seatbelts ladies and gentlemen, things are about to get very, very, interesting.

(This story was originally published in Social Rebirth and has been republished using a Creative Commons licence.)  
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