Could nanotechnology address the emissions epidemic?

2nd September 2019
Alex Lynn

Many governments have made bold commitments to ban petrol and diesel vehicles from our roads to reduce CO2 emissions. For example, UK Environment Secretary Michael Gove claimed this was achievable by 2040. Such claims are widely dismissed as impossible, in part due to our reliance on centralised fossil fuel-produced power sources. 

Here, Matthew Stone, Director of Nextgen Nano, explains why nanotechnology may hold the key to decentralised renewable power.

In 2018, the UK Government published its Road To Zero strategy to reduce vehicle carbon emissions. Part of this strategy was a pledge by the Government to ensure that half of all vehicles on UK roads are hybrid or electric vehicles (EVs) by 2030, with a further goal of ending the sale of conventional diesel vehicles by 2040.

At the time of publication, the strategy was criticised by some as falling short of a previously mentioned hard ban on petrol and diesel vehicles. However, this raises a question as to how effective this strategy will be at reducing overall carbon emissions, given the reliance of the country’s infrastructure on fossil fuel-derived power.

Alongside the publication of the strategy, 2018 marked another significant moment for the UK’s reduction in harmful greenhouse gases as the country ran for three consecutive days without coal power. It also saw the country surpass 1,000 hours of coal-free power generation.

This still leaves a lot to achieve if the country is to truly reduce transport-related carbon emissions. According to a 2018 survey, the average UK car owner drives approximately nine hours per week, which would total roughly 468 hours, or 19.5 days, annually.

There are no substantial figures reporting the average amount of time that an EV can operate between charges, but the longest distance a commercially available EV can drive on a single charge as of January 1 2019, according to New European Driving Cycle (NEDC) tests, is 393 miles. If every driver in the UK had this, each would require approximately 60 charging sessions per year on average.

If each of the 45.5 million active licensed drivers were to do this, the coal-fuelled charging power from charging stations would still have a substantial environmental impact. The only ways to counter this are to either fully adopt renewable technologies for the electrical grid, which we’ve seen is an understandably gradual process, or to reduce grid reliance for transportation.

Going off-grid

According to data presented by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the transportation industry was responsible for 14 per cent of global greenhouse emissions in 2010. However, this included all forms of transport, including marine transportation that typically requires liquid fuels like gasoline and diesel. These forms of transport should be given as much consideration as motor vehicles when we tackle the issue of greenhouse emissions.

The best answer is to find a practical, long-term solution to decentralised power generation, which would allow the entire transportation industry, from road and rail to marine, to substantially reduce its carbon emissions and associated operating expenses. This has been a recurring topic of conversation for many in the renewables industry but making it a reality has proven difficult.

Traditionally, the challenge has been in obtaining enough physical space to deliver an adequate capacity of renewable technology. This has particularly been a problem for solar panels. Photovoltaic (PV) technology has evolved over the years, but a generally low conversion efficiency rate means that a large surface area is necessary to reliably and consistently generate enough usable power.

Scientists have been working for decades to address this issue, which is why we are entering the third generation of solar technology. These are technologies that are designed to be more sustainable, cost-effective, efficient and versatile than their predecessors.

Nextgen Nano is among the companies making headway in this field, with its patented PolyPower using breakthroughs in organic semiconductor research and nanotechnology to create efficient, flexible and semi-transparent panels. This technology stands as a stark contrast to the large, brittle and inefficient PV panels that are traditionally associated with solar technology.

Yet this technology is not noteworthy just because it marks a step forward for solar power. The properties of PolyPower make it an ideal candidate for creating vehicles that are able to operate independently of grid power, effectively turning an EV or electric-powered cruise ship into its own separate electrical system.

This is where the use of nanotechnology proves invaluable in Nextgen’s technology. Because PolyPower is developed at a nano level and is transparent and flexible, it can effectively be applied as an invisible thin layer to the surface of vehicles. This effectively makes it comparable to a coating that uses energy from the sun to fuel the vehicle itself, reducing reliance on charging infrastructure and, as a result, fossil fuels.

Theoretically, PolyPower could be applied to an EV by an automotive manufacturer and incorporated into the design of a new model with its own decentralised electrical system. This would significantly extend the range of the EV beyond the current industry maximum of 393 miles.

With this, the vision of the UK Government to swap out diesel and petrol cars for EVs to reduce emissions by 2040 seems much more achievable and impactful. If the argument is made that drivers could be driving a self-powered vehicle that would ultimately cost them considerably less as it requires much less frequent fuelling than their diesel-guzzling car, it’s hard to imagine many who wouldn’t be tempted. Third generation solar, and Nextgen’s nanotechnology-enabled technology, makes this possible, adding value the entire supply chain.

Committing to reduce carbon emissions and fossil fuel usage is a bold decision for any economy to make, but it’s those who dare to take the step forward that will lead the way into a brighter, better future. All it takes is a few pioneering companies and countries to look beyond what the eye can see, to nanotechnology, to achieve truly decentralised power and globally-recognised green status.

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