Researchers at Kyoto University recently produced a palladium analog by alloying equal parts of rhodium and silver into small, 10-nm particles. Early press reports erroneously labeled the material as “synthetic palladium” or an “artificial rare metal” – both terms that should set any scientist’s teeth on edge. In reality, the resultant particle is not a form of elemental palladium. It simply shares “the same properties,” and the researchers believe their analog will be able to replace the metal in catalysts. This has clear implications for automakers, which use a large quantity of palladium in catalytic converters. Indeed, several automakers are apparently collaborating with the group already.
We’ll keep an eye on follow-up announcements from this group as it looks to replace other elements. But the researchers acknowledged that commercial-scale production of palladium analogs would be difficult. Interested clients should stick with the more mature offerings from companies like Nanostellar, Catalytic Materials, and QID Nanotechnologies for now.
The increasing consumption and diminishing reserves of fossil fuels will create significant issues for civilization, but energy efficiency can help mitigate the challenge – and advances in nanotechnology have a role to play. Reasonable adoption of six nano-enabled products, detailed in this week’s graphic, offers the potential to reduce total energy consumption for the U.S., Germany, and Japan by as much as 12% in 2020. The U.S. alone could potentially eliminate 1,027 trillion BTU from its final energy consumption (FEC).
- Quantum-dot-enhanced lighting will have the greatest impact as the U.S. phases out incandescent light bulbs under government mandate. Highly efficient at downconverting light from blue LED sources, quantum dots (QDs) will ease the transition towards LEDs as an efficient source of high-quality warmly colored light. The U.S. commercial, industrial, and residential sectors spend approximately 23%, 1.3%, and 7.0% of their energy on lighting, and assuming 25% adoption in 2020, QD-enhanced bulbs will reduce country-wide FEC by 394 trillion BTU, translating into a reduction of $12.7 billion in annual spending for electricity, assuming $0.11/kWh retail price.
- Nanocomposite body parts and frames for automobiles come in a close second. Further improving the high strength-to-weight ratios and economics of composite materials, they allow automakers to cut significant amounts of weight without sacrificing structural integrity – lowering fuel consumption by up to 10.7%. Automotive transportation in the U.S. constituted 33.6% total FEC in 2009 (and could grow slightly to 34.6% in 2020). So 13.5% adoption of automotive nanocomposites through 2020 could cut 317 trillion BTU, or 0.5%, from total FEC.
- Tribological coatings in automotive engines carry the third largest impact. By reducing friction in the drivetrain by 10% to 30%, they translate into a 1.8% to 5.3% reduction in fuel consumption. These coatings will eliminate 145 trillion BTU from FEC at 12.5% adoption, and will drop fuel consumption by about 1.3 billion gallons of gasoline in 2020.
- Nanofiber air filters, aerogel insulation, thermochromic windows, and QDs for LCDs combine to represent the remaining 0.27% reduction in 2020 FEC. LCDs constitute a very small fraction of the overall residential and commercial energy footprint, so it’s logical that the energy savings there are minor on the national scale – only about 10 trillion BTU in 2020. Nanofiber air filters and aerogel building insulation reduce 2020 FEC by about 65 trillion BTU apiece, and thermochromic windows cut off almost 11 trillion BTU.
In late November, Daimler announced it would work with Toray to build its own carbon fiber production facility in order to hedge against supply scarcity issues. Before this announcement, the pair had worked together to further develop Toray’s “high-cycle” resin-transfer molding (RTM) process, which supposedly reduces curing time to about 10 minutes. The terms of the recent arrangement were not disclosed, but Daimler did say that it is looking to integrate the carbon fiber-reinforced plastics (CFRPs) into the Mercedes CL, SLK, and CLS models. It remains unclear where exactly the composites would end up. But it’s likely that they will form parts of the frame as Daimler aims to drop body-in-white (BIW) weight by 10%.
Automakers today understand the benefits of composites but are still skeptical about using them outside of small-volume exotics (like the 2009 Corvette ZR1, produced at 2000/year) given their worsening economics at higher volumes. Together, Daimler and Toray are looking to buck that trend and push CFRPs into vehicles produced at 25,000/year to 30,000/year volumes. This move will be an important test for composites in the automotive industry. Success could open the floodgates in the years to come.
In terms of sheer volume, The U.S. dominated the rest of the world in terms of nanotech funding and new patents last year. U.S. government funding, corporate spending, and VC investment in nanotech collectively reached 2.5 billion in 2009.
But as this week’s graphic shows, the country is only average in terms of its technology development capacity. Although there is a lot of nanotech activity within U.S. borders, its ability to commercialize those technologies and apply them toward economic growth is comparatively mediocre. U.S. competitiveness in long-term innovation is also at risk, as the relative number of science and engineering graduates in its population is significantly lower than it is in other countries.
Meanwhile, Japan, South Korea, and Germany all stand to get more bang from their nanotech bucks. Although smaller, all three compare more favorably than the U.S. in terms of their ability to use nanotech as an engine for growing their economies. In addition, these countries also rate highly in terms of publications, patents, government funding, and corporate spending.
The governments of both China and Russia launched well-publicized challenges to U.S. nanotech dominance in 2009. But the technology hasn’t gained substantial momentum in either country’s private sector, both of which have a history of skimping on R&D. The relative lack of momentum was further underscored by the abysmal number of new nanotech patents for either country last year.
Source: Lux Research report “Ranking the Nations on Nanotech: Hidden Havens and False Threats.“
The Canadian government is reportedly planning to require all companies working with nanomaterials to submit usage and toxicity data starting later this month, making it the first country to make submissions mandatory. Other countries and regions that have collected data on nanomaterials have done so with voluntary programs – like the Nanomaterial Stewardship Program (NMSP) in the U.S. and the U.K.’s Voluntary Reporting Scheme for engineered nanoscale materials – both of which have suffered disappointing results (see the August 11, 2008 LRNJ and the September 17, 2007 LRNJ). An interim report issued by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) outlined the progress of the NMSP, and the numbers were dismal. Eleven months into the program, only 29 companies and organizations participated, and only submitted information on 123 out of a total of 2,084 potential nanomaterials.
Lux Research, along with industry leaders such as DuPont and BASF, and advocacy groups like the Project for Emerging Nanotechnologies (PEN) and the Natural Resources Defense Council, have long advocated more aggressive governments action on nanotech EHS (see the May 19, 2008 LRNJ, and the reports “The Developing Nanotech Environmental, Health, and Safety Landscape” and “Taking Action on Nanotech Environmental, Health, and Safety Risks“). The tasks that lay ahead for regulatory bodies remain daunting, considering the sheer enormity and complexity of the nanomaterials space. It will be years before regulators will understand the effects of nanomaterials on health and the environment well enough to establish clear regulations (see the September 17, 2007 LRNJ), but the step taken by Canada to collect much-needed information is a move in the right direction.