A global-scale energy crisis looms ahead, according to Nobel laureate Richard E. Smalley, who said that nanotechnology will figure centrally in providing technological solutions.

“Energy is the single most important problem facing humanity today—not just the U.S., but worldwide,” Smalley said at a nanotechnology conference in Washington April 3. “The magnitude of this problem is incredible.”

Presently the world consumes 14 terawatts of power per day, the equivalent of 210 million barrels of oil, said Smalley, a professor at Rice University in Houston.

“By the middle of this century, assuming there is no apocalyptic event” that drastically curtails energy usage, he said, global demand by an estimated 8 billion people will at least double today’s total and possibly will reach 60 terawatts per day.

And “it can’t be fossil energy,” Smalley said, noting that oil production “will peak worldwide” sometime in this decade and then settle into a steady decline—taking our economy with it if we remain dependent on oil for energy, he said.
Unhappy century?

“Energy is hands-down the biggest enterprise on the planet,” Smalley said, by way of placing its importance in perspective: at $3 trillion a year globally, energy constitutes “the largest industry in the world,” versus only $1.3 trillion for agriculture and $700 billion for all defense spending, he said.

The economic consequences will be “extremely severe” and we will have “an extremely unhappy century” if we do not address the huge looming energy shortfall, Smalley said. “We must revolutionize energy [production] in the next couple of generations.”

Yet the known energy alternatives to oil come with various limitations or drawbacks, said Smalley, who won the 1996 Nobel Prize in chemistry.

Some alternatives are good but simply insufficient, he said. Conservation would help, for example, but “there’s just not enough energy to be had” through conservation to meet the need, he said. Hydropower has reached its limits, Smalley said: even if we were to harness the Amazon River, among the last great untapped sources of hydropower, its energy “would only be a drop in the bucket.” Wind power could make a “significant” contribution, “but not enough in itself” to meet the need, he said.

Other energy sources come laden with one problem or another, Smalley said. Coal might serve as a “bridge” to other energy solutions, he said, but its usage means putting more “gigatons” of carbon into the atmosphere, which the world can no longer endure. Nuclear fission and fusion are very expensive and they come saddled with problems such as waste disposal and high security requirements, he said.

The most promising solution is solar power, said Smalley, noting “the Earth is bathed” in 165,000 terawatts of energy every moment. The trick, he said, is to collect that energy (or the tiny portion people need) efficiently.
Nanotech’s solar role

Nanotechnology figures mightily in the practical harnessing of solar power—and, for that matter, in any long-term energy solution, according to Smalley.

“Nanotechnology is right at the core [of] the answer to the energy problem,” he said.

In the case of solar power, for example, nanotechnology holds the promise of cutting the cost of photovoltaics by 10 to 100 times, he said. It may bring about a similar-scale reduction in the cost of fuel cells, Smalley said, in enumerating two of “14 enabling nanotech revolutions” that could transform world energy production and usage.

These potential energy breakthroughs, which, he said, “could only come from nanotechnology,” also include a “revolution” in hydrogen storage; direct conversion of light and water into hydrogen supplies; “photocatalytic” reduction of carbon dioxide; and nanomaterials, or coatings enabling the possibility of very deep drilling into Earth to obtain geothermal heat.

The best way to tap the sun’s enormous energy stream may be to put solar power plants in space or on the moon, said Smalley, noting that solar cells in space could operate at about nine times the efficiency of similar cells on Earth.

“There [are] massive amounts of [solar] energy that miss the Earth every day,” shooting right past it, he said.

Here again, nanotechnology would figure critically: providing “super-strong, light-weight materials” that would make it possible to build efficient solar power-collecting space stations, and perhaps leading to nanoelectronics-based robots that could handle tasks such as maintaining space-based solar energy systems.

With each type of energy he enumerated, Smalley came back to nanotechnology as the path to a solution. “I guarantee you” that nanotechnology will make fuel cells cheap enough to be practical, he said. Using coal requires sequestering the carbon: “Is there an answer? If there is, nanotechnology will provide it.”

To make solar power work, “We need to find ways to make photovoltaics as cheap as paint”—and, again, nanotechnology can make the difference, he said.

Solving this gigantic energy problem, which Smalley termed “the largest enterprise of humanity” on the horizon, would go far toward solving many of humanity’s other most pressing problems—such as food and water supplies, environmental degradation, and poverty—because they are so directly affected by the availability of energy, he said.

Smalley called for a $10 billion program to “kick-start” scientific work toward a long-term energy solution. “This generation needs to do this,” he said. “We can’t afford to wait.”