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How nanotechnologies will disrupt the electrical grid

From smaller, more powerful solar panels to new momentum for distributed power sources, accelerating nanotechnology R&D holds serious promise for commercial energy.

Is it just me, or is the pace of technology innovation speeding up? Acceleration is certainly evident in nanotechnology R&D.

Back in December, I wrote two blogs that updated my 2020 predictions first published in January 2014. One key takeaway: nanotechnology discoveries are occurring on almost a weekly basis.

Universities have been a hotbed of scientific discoveries in material sciences. Consider the recent news about graphene, a particularly interesting nanomaterial, and photons.

A photon is a unit of electromagnetic radiation that has energy but not an electrical charge. To the naked human eye, photons are sunshine. Research in Switzerland revealed that graphene can take one photon and make multiple electrons.

This is what today’s solar panels do — convert photons into electrons. But graphene has a multiplier effect, with the potential to boost existing best case conversion rates from 32 percent to 60 percent.

While this announcement addresses research results, commercialization won’t be far behind, and we’ll soon be reading about new solar panels that leverage graphene materials to increase harvestability of solar potential.

Other research advances focused on making solar harvesting materials more flexible. What do these research announcements mean?

Here are three key points:

  • Solar panels, like microprocessors, will shrink in size and increase in power.
  • Areas that have marginal value for solar generation will get a second look as panels improve in their productivity and their flexibility to be adhered to non-traditional surfaces.
  • Distributed energy resource (DER) momentum grows as a result as more rooftops, landscapes and other building surfaces harvest solar energy and proliferate in distribution grids.

Other nano research is concluding that a little stress can be a good thing for silicon crystals known as quantum dots.

Around the time of the 1973 energy crisis, the popular saying was “small is beautiful.” In at least some research labs around the world, the new saying could be “small and stressed is beautiful.”

One commercial application possibility focuses again on improving the energy harvestability of solar panels made from silicon. However, there’s also interest in how these nanocrystal reactions can increase the charge/discharge cycles of batteries, improve computer displays and decrease power consumption.

Are investors paying attention? Graphene has been dubbed the “wonder material,” and big players such as IBM and Samsung have been allocating money and resources into it. China has filed more patents involving graphene than any other country.

One of the first commercial applications of graphene research is a light bulb that improves on the energy efficiency of LED bulb technologies. Once these new bulbs are available later this year, investors who have been hanging back will be looking for other commercialization opportunities.

From a smart grid perspective, graphene has exciting application potential in energy harvesting, energy storage, and even energy consumption, specifically reductions in waste heat. It’s a rapidly evolving area of materials science research that will be the foundation for disruptive technologies integrated into the electric grid.

The dual impacts of these disruptors will be to increase the amount of electricity generated by DER assets and reduce electricity consumption as devices become more energy efficient.

The speed at which R&D in graphene and other nanomaterials is advancing to commercialization may blast past my predictions of overall progress by 2020.

This article originally appeared at Smart Grid Library.

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