Nanotechnology has been held out as the missing element for making fuel cell use commonplace since the field first started to get news coverage outside of a select group of scientific journals.
I remember back to around 2001 when there was a real expectation that NEC would be offering commercially a fuel cell-powered laptop shortly. After a couple of years of getting “next year” as the status update, the story just faded away and it became clear that it wasn’t going to happen.
It may satisfy some to lay the blame for this failure to commercialize fuel cell-powered laptops at the feet of nanotechnology (in this case it was the use of nanohorns) but it is more likely the case that toting around a laptop through airport security with a half a liter of methanol attached to it wasn’t going to pass muster.
Then there was the hope that carbon nanotubes (CNTs) would be useful in storing hydrogen. There were supposedly some claims that CNTs had greater than 50wt% storage capacity but it is now generally accepted that the figure is closer to 1wt% in practicality.Okay, nanohorn-based direct from methanol fuel cells just weren’t practical and CNTs just are not that great at hydrogen storage. But there are always catalysts, right? Huge surface area and small volume have always been appealing for improving catalysts, and the same is true for those catalysts used in fuel cells. But improved catalysts hardly addresses the real problems for fuel cells. Let’s face it the stumbling blocks for fuel cells has been the cost of producing hydrogen and, especially in the case of portable fuel cells (like those used in an automobile), the lack of an infrastructure for supporting a so-called hydrogen economy. With this as a backdrop, I saw a headline, “Nanotechnology and the Hydrogen Economy” so I had to check it out. I found the video I’ve posted below. Oddly, there is no mention of how nanotechnology will enable a hydrogen economy, but nanotechnology and hydrogen economy are discussed independently. We are given a definition of nanotechnology (thanks, we really don’t have enough of those) and we are told how one photon from the sun has just enough energy to split a water molecule into its constituent parts. How we are supposed to harness that energy for this purpose is discussed with a smile and the quip, “The energy is there we just have to figure out a way to use it.” Yeah, I guess so. What this has to do with nanotechnology would be of some passing interest. Maybe we can get that in the next video from its producers.
Dexter Johnson is a contributing editor at IEEE Spectrum, with a focus on nanotechnology.