A societal transition towards a world which is less dependent on fossil fuels is an unparalleled scientific challenge for the coming years. The developments so far have shown that nanotechnology can play a pivotal role in this. Nanotechnology plays an important role in the efficient generation and consumption of energy. This is crucial for e.g. electric cars to be introduced on a large scale. Nanotechnology also plays a key role in the capture of CO2 and bio catalysis. In summary, the two research areas within this theme are: the efficient generation of sustainable energy and efficient energy utilisation in secondary conversion of energy and separation of substances.
The following programmes fall under this theme:
2A - Efficient generation of sustainable energy - Prof. dr. W.C. Sinke (ECN)
2B - Efficient energy utilization by secondary conversion of energy and seperation - Prof. Dr. F. Kapteijn (TUD)
2A Efficient generation of sustainable energy
Solar energy can be used to generate heat, electricity and fuels. This programme focuses on generation of electricity and related enabling technologies. This is a key technology for the transition towards a sustainable energy system, in particular in highly urbanised countries like The Netherlands. Very large-scale utilisation of these technologies requires the availability of easy-to-use, high performance, and low-cost systems. In this context, opportunities for the application of nanotechnology are numerous and great.
This program aims at applying nanostructures and nanotechnology for the following topics:
High-performance solar cells
(1) Plasmonic surface structures to maximize the absorption of light, to enable the use of extremely thin (wafer- or film-based) solar cells, and thus to reduce materials consumption and enhance process throughput.
(2) Quantum-dot-based coating materials to “shape” the solar spectrum for better matching with the sensitivity of solar cells, and thus to enhance efficiency.
(3) Nanocrystalline silicon materials deposited at high rate, for use in multi-junction thin-film solar cells, which are sensitive to a broader part of the solar spectrum and therefore have a higher efficiency.
Advanced light management
(1) Diffuse light concentrators, to enable the use of (small area) concentrator solar cells in systems which can be integrated into buildings (i.e. systems that do not require sun tracking).
2B Efficient energy utilization by secondary conversion of energy and separation
The largest societal problem of the 21st century is the need for new carriers and sources of energy. This “energy challenge” has attracted sharp minds in life sciences and natural sciences alike – there is no question that we need to explore many avenues. Fundamental insight that teaches us how to convert one form of energy into another is crucial.
These conversion processes can, broadly, be divided into two classes: in the first class, an unsuitable carrier of energy is converted into a more suitable one. Here, the crux is to destroy as little useful energy as possible, transferring all the energy to the new carrier. Hydrogen, for instance, is an excellent energy source but a lousy carrier, and this triggers the search for materials that can store and release hydrogen and the search for materials that can facilitate such conversions. The actual harvesting of the energy occurs in the second class of conversions, where the energy is released into a form that the user needs (electrical, mechanical, propulsion, etc). Here, we need to capture harmful waste materials of the exhausted carrier, for instance CO2.
There is wonderful potential for nanoscience in these conversions. The possibilities are not limited to only the use of nanostructured materials as the energy carriers themselves – such materials are generally too expensive and complicated for such a role. Rather, materials with controlled features at the nanometre scale can facilitate many of these conversions of energy-carrying molecules, and controlling their architecture with nanoscience promises much more precision and much better yields. Increased precision will translate into less waste of energy, extended use of carrier molecules, and reduced emissions of unwanted products such as CO2.