Nanotechnology researchers solve the problem of energy lost through resistance as the current travels down the wire.
Carbon nanotubes could one day replace copper wire in electricity networks, leading to significant energy savings.
Our current copper-based energy transmission system is massively inefficient. As power travels over the grid, up to 15% of the electricity can dissipate due to heat loss. It’s as if, day and night, invisible shoplifters are pilfering a significant chunk of the inventory from our global energy store.
With funding support from the US Air Force, nanotechnology researchers at Rice University in Houston, Texas, are developing a high-tech solution to this problem. Their answer: metallic nanotubes – very long, artificially manufactured molecules made out of carbon with a structure not unlike chicken wire.
Unlike copper, says Andrew Barron, professor of chemistry at Rice and one of the team’s lead researchers, the tubes offer no resistance to the passage of current. As a result, “there’s no power loss due to the conversion of electricity to heat”.
With a nanotube transmission grid, he says, wind farms in Texas could deliver electricity to east coast cities with virtually 100% efficiency. Solar farms in the Sahara could send energy to Paris. Visual pollution could be eliminated, too, says Barron, as the cables can be easily buried.
Commercialisation is still years away. The main technical challenge involves creating miles and miles of material out of a structure that is 50,000 times smaller than a human hair. But the Rice researchers are making headway. They’ve developed a technique to enlarge metallic nanotubes and are now fine-tuning the process. “How fast we make progress depends in part on our funding level,” Barron says. “We’re not the only ones working on this, though. Eventually this will happen.” – Carl Frankel
Photo: Mike Williams