About 1,000 times narrower than the width of an average human hair, nano materials may hold an ability far larger than their size.

Dr. Alexander Balandin, IEEE senior member and chair of the Materials Science and Engineering program at the University of California Riverside spoke with Breaking Energy about his groundbreaking research in the field that won him the 2011 IEEE Pioneer of Nanotechnology Award. His award-winning research results could have major implications for heat removal from computer chips and efficiency of solar photovoltaic panels.

“Once you have nanotechnology you can structure material in such a way that its properties change completely,” Balandin said. In terms of solar panels, for example “nanotechnology allows you to modify interaction of light and material.”

He said engineering materials at nanometer scale could be used to increase photon absorption by the PV solar cell material. In addition, by varying the size of the quantum dots–a specific type of nanostructures–that the light hits, he said engineers can increase the efficiency of the panels above the current 30% to as much as 90%.

Balandin also researches thermal management, which he said is an issue for electronics developers as well, who are trying to make devices smaller and smaller but are running into the problem of overheating, Balandin said.

“Every switch of a transistor causes generation,” he said. “When you put your laptop on your lap, you can feel it’s very hot. Inside it’s even hotter.” Hot spots, he said, lead to eventual breakdown of the chips. With devices operating at faster speeds and crammed into smaller spaces, engineers across various industries are seeking ways to more efficiency remove heat from electronic devices.

Graphene–a recently discovered form of carbon–can help solving this problem, Balandin said. It was discovered in Balandin’s lab at UCR that graphene has extremely high intrinsic thermal conductivity, meaning it particularly good at conduct heat.

Solar panels also are less efficient when overheated. Balandin is researching possibilities of creating thermal interface materials with graphene, that would help to maintain cooler temperatures in PV panels.

A team of engineers in the Middle East are also investing various passive cooling devices to keep heat down in solar PV panels. Read the full story: Arava’s Energy Partnership Aims To Bridge Borders And Reduce Emissions.

The Challenges Ahead

Though it holds many promises, nanotechnology is still relatively expensive and complicated technically, both factors that could limit its growth in the market, Balandin said.

The prices are already dropping, according to Balandin.

“The challenge to making all these nanotechnology applications mainstream comes down to how we affordably and efficiently get them in the hands of people for practical use,” said Jo-Won Lee, IEEE member and chair professor at the Department of Convergence Nanoscience at Hanyang University in Seoul, South Korea.

But according to the IEEE, many engineers are focusing on the tiniest parts of nanotechnology, including the atoms and molecules, rather than focusing on some of the larger bits that might have more practical application in the short term.

In terms of the technology, the challenge is to preserve the intrinsic properties of materials while also fiddling with them on an atomic level.

“Once you integrate [nanostructures] into bigger systems, you may lose those properties,” Balandin said. The challenge will be to scale a technology with so many tiny and powerful parts.

Here & Now

But nanotechnology is not some far-off fantasy, Balandin said. Laptops and cell phones, with tiny transistors with nanometer feature sizes, are already using nanotechnology on a commercial scale.

The practical possibilities for nanotechnology also include a solar paint, filled with tiny nanometer micro solar cells, that improve light absorption and conversion to electricity. Another application is batteries with improved electrodes that could charge in seconds, which could dramatically alter electric vehicles and electricity storage.

“It sounds like science fiction,” he said, “but in reality its not that far away.”

In time for its 11th annual IEEE NANO 2011 Conference, to be held in Portland, Oregon from August 15 – 19, IEEE is hoping to raise awareness of the capability of tiny particles to revolutionize the energy industry.

Photo Caption: Employees of a Kurchatov Center for Synchrotron Radiation and Nanotechnology (KCSRNT) of the Russian nuclear research centre, the Kurchatov Institute, are seen during a press tour in Moscow on October 24, 2006.