It’s A Nano World

For the uninitiated, “nanotechnology” refers to the science of the very small, engineering particles and their corresponding materials at the nanometer scale.  For a sense of perspective, at one-billionth of a meter, a nanometer is about 1/60,000 of the width of a human hair, so we’re talking engineering not just at the microscopic scale, but the electron-microscopic scale.

Why bother?  Because researchers from across a number of disciplines have discovered that engineering particles at such minute scale can change the fundamental performance characteristics of the material.  You want a material that captures a certain wavelength of light, or transmits a certain frequency of energy?  You just might be able to obtain it by tweaking currently available materials at the nanoscale, to change the “morphology” (think texture) of the particles so that they behave in the desired way.

The nano-world is sometimes mind-bending.  For instance, with enough wrinkles, folds or pockets, a particle with the volume of a grain of sand can have a surface area much greater than that of a basketball.  When you’re able to play topological tricks like this, amazing performance improvements in even the most basic stuff can be achieved.

As this capability has been increasingly revealed in the past decade or so, more and more acadmic research and an increasing number of companies are investigating how nano-engineering can improve the performance of all sorts of things.  This is especially true for the cleantech arena. 

Product innovation ranges across the map:  nanomaterials optimized for increased performance of membranes for fuel cells and cathodes for batteries, enhanced thermal insulation for building materials, higher capacity of contaminant capture from water, and on and on and on.

At few weeks ago, as the investment banking firm Livingston Securities convened their 7th Annual Nanotechnology Conference in New York City, Crystal Research Associates released a new report, entitled “Nanotechnology and the Built Environment:  The Transition to Green Infrastructure”.  This document profiles some of the seemingly-mature industrial sectors that are being transformed by nanotechnology, including some of the biggest corporations in the world such as GE (NYSE: GE), BASF (Deutsche:  BAS), Siemens (NYSE:  SIE) and Honeywell (NYSE:  HON) working on some of the smallest scales imaginable.

The report covers many of the sectors you’d expect to be revolutionized by materials enhancements, such as photovoltaics and lighting, but also touches on a couple of real surprises.  For instance, consider NanoSteel – a company that is commercializing metallic coating technology developed at the Idaho National Laboratory to improve the performance of structural metals under challenging environmental conditions, such as high temperature or corrosion.

In addition to NanoSteel, other presenters at Livingston’s nanotech conference that particularly piqued my personal interest included Siluria (developing an approach to convert methane into ethylene, thereby reducing the requirement for petroleum to make plastics) and QM Power (offering a new basic design of motors and generators promising higher-efficiencies).

It’s always interesting to go to events such as this to get exposed to companies working under the radar screen that are aiming to achieve fascinating innovations, sometimes in the most mundane or obscure areas.  Even if not all these companies will ultimately be successful, either in serving customer needs or in generating good returns to investors, it’s heartening to note the degree and scope of creative disruption that continues to seethe in our world of incredible challenges, turbulence and pessimism/cynicism. 

Many players thinking big about the future are moving small, as small as possible.

Counting the Cost of Water

I was contacted last week by a journalist doing a story on ‘the future of water’. When I asked what the publication was, I was told it was for Esquire. Needless to say I was only too glad to help, – it’s not often I have the opportunity to have my name in print alongside the Jolie-Pitts of the world!

Some of the questions I was asked were: ‘Where is our water going to come from?”Is it going to be from desalination?’, ‘How much growth can we expect to see in desalination, and what breakthroughs if any in this area are we on the verge of?’

There was a very good session on water at the Always On Going Green Conference in San Francisco last week chaired by Christopher Gasson of Global Water Intelligence (GWI). I am going to borrow a little bit here from that session and from the GWI report “Desalination Markets 2007: A Global Industry Perspective’.

Desalination is a rapidly growing industry and there is no shortage of the raw material required. The Global Desalination industry is predicted to grow from 39.9 million m3/d at the beginning of 2006 to 64.3 million m3/d in 2010, and to 97.5 million m3/d in 2015. This represents a 61% increase in capacity over a five-year period, and a 140% increase in capacity over a ten-year period.

Beyond 2015, the rate of growth in the industry is expected to accelerate, as large markets such as the US, China and India will by then have established the financial and political models to pursue large-scale desalination projects. The rate at which the installed capacity increases is expected to move into double figures, and the annual increment to capacity is expected to increase by an average of more than 15% between 2015 and 2020.

To understand why desalination is so important, you first have to understand just how little of the world’s water is actually fresh water. If all the water on Earth were compressed to a single gallon, only four ounces would be fresh water. Only two drops would be readily accessible and human beings already use one of those drops. But about 92 percent of that single drop is used by agriculture and industry; just 8 percent goes to cities, towns, and municipalities. So for every gallon of water on the planet, only 8 percent of one drop is available for drinking, bathing, and other personal consumption.

A number of other factors compound this scarcity:
· Political & economic instability
· Uneven freshwater distribution
· Population growth in areas of limited natural resources
China has only 8 percent of the world’s fresh water to meet the needs of 22 percent of the world’s population, while Canada has 30 times more water and only 0.5 percent of the world’s population. While Global warming has no predictable impact on overall scarcity it is believed to increase the risk of both floods and droughts.

The good news is that costs for desalination have been dropping dramatically. Forty years ago the cost was $10 per m3. Now it’s down to $0.50/m3 (GWI). However 50% of the current costs are associated with energy use, and energy costs are only going one way. Given the huge impact that energy has on the cost of desalinating water, it is difficult to see how the industry can continue to deliver further significant reductions in desalination costs.

So what’s the next big thing going to be in desal membranes? Some say nanotechnology. Oak Venture Partners and Khosla Ventures clearly think so as they have just invested $15M into the UCLA spin-out company, NanoH20 to help them commercialize their Thin‐Film Nanocomposite (TFN) membrane system.
What NanoH2O are doing is very clever, they are nano-engineering the characteristics of the membrane so that it ‘wants’ to let water through’ and ‘wants’ to repel other contaminants. Its almost Taoist in principle, as opposed to trying to push water through a very small aperture with brute force, you are engineering that aperture so that its natural tendency is to let water pass through it and to repel other contaminants.

If desalination continues to increase, the water produced will have to be metered. Smart metering technology with remote on-line data collection is an area to watch.

Paul O’Callaghan is the founding CEO of the Clean Tech development consultancy O2 Environmental . He lectures on Environmental Protection technology at Kwantlen University College is a Director with Ionic Water Technologies and an industry expert reviewer for Sustainable Development Technology Canada.