How To Dispel the Hype Around Nanotech and Alternative Energy?

Will the realities that have set in for alternative energy extend to the expectations for nanotech and energy?

2 min read

When oil prices were beginning to plummet from their highs of $150/bbl about this time last year and the stocks for alternative energy companies didn’t start to go down immediately with them, talk began that the economics of alternative energy solutions were beginning to dislodge themselves from the price of oil. That kind of talk was soon drowned out when the economic crisis really began to bloom in the Autumn of 2008.

While the enthusiasm for alternative energy stocks started to come down into the realm of reality, the hope that somehow nanotechnology was going to make solar power and fuel cells suddenly stand on their own two feet without subsidies and make economic sense when compared with fossil fuels continued on. It has proven much harder to dispel this notion, especially in the case of so-called “nano solar”.

I just helped complete an update to a report originally published two years ago on the impact nanotechnology will have on the energy market.

Two years ago, the report presented the somewhat unpopular idea at the time that nanotechnology’s role in improving energy conversion technologies like solar and fuel cells would have a minor economic impact. Instead energy saving would be a large impact area with better insulation, lighter materials and more efficient lighting. Another area that would be key would be energy storage through improved batteries.

But as the report discovered energy conversion just was not going to feel much of an impact from nanotechnology. And it seems that over the last two years the situation has gotten a little worse when it comes to fuel cells.

While it still appears that stationary fuel cells for providing power to office buildings still makes sense, it seems that with the Obama administration’s cutting of government funding for research of hydrogen fuel cells we may finally be moving away from the diversion that fuel cell powered automobiles are going to happen anytime soon, if at all.

Add on to that carbon nanotubes have not proven to be the effective hydrogen storage material many had hoped and the prospects for nanotechnology and hydrogen fuel cells have diminished somewhat over the last two years.

When it comes to nanotechnology and photovoltaics, specifically thin film solar systems, the last few years would be trying on the patience of just about any investor as manufacturing and reliability issues still remain a significant obstacle. The result is that in reality nano-enabled thin film solar will not have much discernible impact on the energy situation until at least 2015.

Now that the context for investment in alternative energy has become a little more rooted to the realities on the ground, it will be interesting to see if the expectations for nanotech in energy (in the near term) comes back down to earth as well.

 

 

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Two Startups Are Bringing Fiber to the Processor

Avicena’s blue microLEDs are the dark horse in a race with Ayar Labs’ laser-based system

5 min read
Diffuse blue light shines from a patterned surface through a ring. A blue cable leads away from it.

Avicena’s microLED chiplets could one day link all the CPUs in a computer cluster together.

Avicena

If a CPU in Seoul sends a byte of data to a processor in Prague, the information covers most of the distance as light, zipping along with no resistance. But put both those processors on the same motherboard, and they’ll need to communicate over energy-sapping copper, which slow the communication speeds possible within computers. Two Silicon Valley startups, Avicena and Ayar Labs, are doing something about that longstanding limit. If they succeed in their attempts to finally bring optical fiber all the way to the processor, it might not just accelerate computing—it might also remake it.

Both companies are developing fiber-connected chiplets, small chips meant to share a high-bandwidth connection with CPUs and other data-hungry silicon in a shared package. They are each ramping up production in 2023, though it may be a couple of years before we see a computer on the market with either product.

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