Tiny Tubular Generators

To the many properties of carbon nanotubes, we can now add electrical generation

3 min read

29 March 2010—A team of scientists led by chemical engineering professor Michael Strano of MIT may have stumbled on a new way to produce electricity using carbon nanotubes, as they explain in a recent issue of Nature Materials.

Since their discovery in the early 1990s, carbon nanotubes have turned out to be remarkably versatile for research applications. These thin, cylindrical carbon molecules, typically nanometers in diameter, have a remarkably large number of electrical and structural properties. They are used to reinforce high-end tennis rackets and bicycle handlebars, to craft Lilliputian nanomotors, and to modulate signals in electronics. Potential applications include transistors for computer circuits (demonstrated by IBM), computer memories (being developed by Nantero), and solar cells. In the past couple of years, scientists have also demonstrated loudspeakers and a tiny ”nanoradio” made with nanotubes.

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This photograph shows a car with the words “We Drive Solar” on the door, connected to a charging station. A windmill can be seen in the background.

The Dutch city of Utrecht is embracing vehicle-to-grid technology, an example of which is shown here—an EV connected to a bidirectional charger. The historic Rijn en Zon windmill provides a fitting background for this scene.

We Drive Solar

Hundreds of charging stations for electric vehicles dot Utrecht’s urban landscape in the Netherlands like little electric mushrooms. Unlike those you may have grown accustomed to seeing, many of these stations don’t just charge electric cars—they can also send power from vehicle batteries to the local utility grid for use by homes and businesses.

Debates over the feasibility and value of such vehicle-to-grid technology go back decades. Those arguments are not yet settled. But big automakers like Volkswagen, Nissan, and Hyundai have moved to produce the kinds of cars that can use such bidirectional chargers—alongside similar vehicle-to-home technology, whereby your car can power your house, say, during a blackout, as promoted by Ford with its new F-150 Lightning. Given the rapid uptake of electric vehicles, many people are thinking hard about how to make the best use of all that rolling battery power.

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