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The Big, The Small, and The Complex
Much Ado About Nearly Nothing: Nanotech And The Future Of Energy

Nanotechnology has found its way into a wide range of consumer products, from cell phones to odor-resistant socks. But is this tiny tech up to one of the biggest challenges of our time: meeting the energy demands of an exploding population on a warming planet? In this program, world-class nanoscientists and environmental leaders explore how advances in nanotechnology are spurring spectacular innovations — including lightweight “wonder materials,” vital energy-storage technologies, and new sources of renewable energy — that promise to redefine the very future of energy. This program is part of the “Big, the Small, and the Complex,” series sponsored by The Kavli Foundation and The Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters. The Kavli Prize recognizes scientists for their seminal advances in astrophysics, nanoscience, and neuroscience.  Learn More

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NARRATION: how did carbon – the building block of life –become both the problem and solution in the climate change conundrum? It comes down to energy.

Carbon is an essential component of the complex molecules that make up all living things on earth. Plants, animals and humans wouldn’t exist without it. It’s abundant in the atmosphere in the form of carbon dioxide. And trapped in the ground in rocks and fossil fuels.

Energy from the sun drives the continuous cycle whereby carbon travels from the atmosphere into organisms, the earth and the ocean. For millions of years our ancestors ate plants for fuel as part of this natural cycle. But everything changed when they learned to control fire and burn plants to release the powerful energy within.

Modern humans discovered new ways to harness the energy stored in nature.

Domesticated beasts of burden powered agriculture. The invention of wind-powered sails opened up trade, travel, and exploration between civilizations.

Waterwheels powered mills and iron works. By the 1600s, Europeans had popularized the use of windmills to saw wood and to grind grains and spices. Innovation in renewable energy continued through the 18th and 19th centuries. But many of these inventions proved more fantastical than practical.

Thomas Newcomen’s invention of the external combustion steam engine in 1712 was a game changer. James Watt made it even more powerful and efficient, lowering the cost of power…while increasing the demand for coal. This paved the way for the industrial revolution….the invention of the internal combustion engine…and a dramatic rise in the consumption of oil.

Progress continued throughout the 20th century bringing millions of vehicles to endless stretches of new highway. Prosperity lead to increased electricity consumption and the construction of new power plants. To put it in perspective: per capita energy consumption more than tripled in the U.S. during the 20th century.

At the same time the world’s population grew, from two and a half billion in 1950 to seven point four billion in 2017, further driving up energy consumption. And this is how carbon extracted from the earth, burned, and released back into the atmosphere became one of the most significant factors in the climate change equation.

So, what’s at stake? As it stands, the planet has warmed by point eight degrees Celsius since the beginning of the industrial revolution. If we continue with business as usual, it’s projected that by the end of this century, average global temperatures will rise by 4 degrees Celsius.

Some suggest we should keep the earth’s carbon in the ground to save the environment. Others argue we should continue growing, and take our chances. After all these “business as usual forecasts”, don’t factor in the potential for human innovation to come up with better solutions. The key to a different way forward may lie in the carbon molecule itself.

Nanoscientists are drilling down to the tiniest scales to harness the unique properties of engineered carbon. And the resulting new technologies have the potential to deliver powerful clean and renewable energy solutions to meet the demands of a growing population on our warming planet.

WALTER ISAACSON, AUTHOR AND CEO OF THE ASPEN INSTITUTE: I can think of nothing more important, than studying things like nanotechnology that hold the promise – we hope, and we’ll be talking about it – to tackle one of the biggest issues of our time. And that of course is energy needs in a planet going through climate change.

[05:05] ISAACSON: We have with us tonight three top nanoscientists and environmentalists who are working on cutting edge and groundbreaking technologies to help mitigate our carbon dilemma.

ISAACSON: Our first guest holds a U.C. presidential chair and is a distinguished professor of chemistry and biochemistry and of materials science and engineering at UCLA. He served as a director of the California Nanotechnology Institute and is the founding editor-in-chief of the leading nanoscience journal, ACS Nano. Please welcome Paul S. Weiss.

ISAACSON: Our next guest is a distinguished university professor and trustee chair of materials science and engineering at Drexel University, founding director of the A.J. Drexel Nanomaterials Institute, and associate editor of the ACS Nano. Please welcome Yury Gogotsi.

ISAACSON:            And also joining us is a distinguished professor of chemical engineering, the founder and director of this CUNY Energy Institute. The Energy Institute has incubated several spin outs, notably Urban Electric power. And he’s chairman of the board. Please welcome Sanjoy Banerjee.

ISAACSON:            So I’m going to start with you if I may, Professor Weiss.   When you say nanotechnology, are you talking about a scientist manipulating atoms in a material to create new materials or what do you mean?

PAUL WEISS PROFESSOR OF CHEMISTRY AND BIOCHEMISTRY, AND OF MATERIALS SCIENCE AND ENGINEERING AT UCLA: So think of the smaller scales being chemistry, where we react atoms and molecules together to build up structures. It’s how all the molecules in us are made. And so we can go beyond that and put molecules and other structures together. That’s the sort of bottom-up version of nanotechnology. The other is the top-down, which is a direct descendant of stone and woodcarving that we’ve done as humans for centuries. Only now we’re doing it in materials like silicon, where we start with a big crystal in a semiconductor foundry that’s going to make computer chips. We cut it up first and then we do simple chemical reactions that can turn it into the metal traces that connect the devices together, the insulators that prevent them from talking to each other when we don’t want them to, and then we do simple reactions that make the transistors and the memory and the logic that turn into the several billion devices on a single chip that we use in our computers and our cell phones now.

ISAACSON:            Well this isn’t a new concept, addressing climate change. We’ve been working on it for a while. Give us a sense of the size of this challenge.

WEISS: Well we have a long way to go in terms of improving efficiency, making devices that hold more energy, that harvest or capture energy more efficiently. We’re really at the start of a race to see which technologies will carry the day and hopefully carry us forward safely into the future.

ISAACSON: What are the major energy sectors you see helping us do that?

WEISS: So in collection of energy, for instance, there’s solar. We could be much more efficient in terms of how we harvest energy there. We’re well on the way in terms of trying different materials. There are some strategies that haven’t been applied at all yet, capturing wave energy based on converting the motion and energy and waves into electricity-

ISAACSON: Wait, explain that one. That’s a fun one.

WEISS: Right. So in your cell phone, when it makes a noise – or your bathroom scale, there are materials that change the pressure into voltages and that’s how your scale weighs you. And you can use that same technology when waves put a stress on the material to generate electricity. And unlike, say, wind or solar, waves continue over time and we can imagine floating or having slightly submerged structures that over a small fraction of the area of the ocean collect enough energy to provide power-

ISAACSON:            Yeah so that’s sort of a future vision of what renewable energy could be, but start with us now. Where we are on renewables? About what percentage of the world’s energy is renewable?

WEISS: So a small and growing percentage comes from solar. Let’s look at what’s going to happen in the future. So we have increasingly inexpensive natural gas and we expect that to grow in the near term. We expect certainly less coal. It’s basically costly, wasteful, and polluting. In the US, other fossil fuels we expect to go down and we’ll be an energy exporter over time. And then energy sources like solar are increasing.

[10:05] WEISS: We’ve had a jump ahead in terms of decreasing cost due to national policies in the US, Germany, China. Wind power, for instance, has great potential to grow. Denmark’s going to go from about 40% wind now to about 85% in a few years. In a small country that’s technologically advanced like that, policy decisions can drive those changes.

ISAACSON:            Let me turn, if I may, to Sanjay: why is nanotechnology such a promising science when it comes to energy development?

SANJOY BANERJEE, PROFESSOR OF CHEMICAL ENGINEERING AND DIRECTOR OF THE CUNY ENERGY INSTITUTE: So one of the areas which I think is sort of the Achilles heel, if you wish, of renewables like solar and wind is the fact that the sun doesn’t shine all the time and the wind doesn’t blow. So you have to have some form of storage in order to be able to utilize these types of technologies. And in the energy storage area, which is absolutely, vital nanotechnology is likely to play a key role.

ISAACSON:            Let me translate real quick: by “storage”, do you mean batteries or there are all sorts of other storage-

BANERJEE: I mean primarily, storage of electricity. And of course you could also store sunlight by breaking water into hydrogen and then storing the hydrogen and maybe mixing it with natural gas to improve the calorific value. There are also ways where you could take sunlight, for example, and make it into liquid fuels. So I’m leaving that aside for the moment. I mean there are applications of nanotechnology in all of those things, but focusing primarily on electricity storage, batteries, capacitors, and things like that which can be distributed close to the point of use so that the losses that come from transmission, distribution, and so on are minimized.

ISAACSON:            Well let’s look at some of these things. How important is location? Are we really going to decentralize and allow power sources to be on my roof?

BANERJEE: Well I don’t know if it’ll be on your roof. I would like to have it on MY roof.

ISAACSON:            My roof in New Orleans, yes.

BANERJEE: But yes. I think that if you had area, the roof area, of course. But I’m looking [at it a little bit differently. In many parts of the world – for example, let’s take India’s example – I think it’s around 35 percent of the villages don’t have electricity.

BANERJEE: If you had local renewables, say solar or biomass or wind, you could leapfrog the transmission distribution system and have a system where you store it locally and use it when needed. I’ll give you a simple example. For example, in India, you have a set of solar panels for a village and people go, charge their batteries, and take it home and use it. Or the battery gets dropped off to their house for a small payment every evening, they use it for their lights or whatever, in the morning the battery’s collected and brought back to the solar charging station. So simple things like that.

ISAACSON:            So what would this do to the grid? Would you be able to leapfrog having a complex grid or do you have to change the grid to make it work-

BANERJEE: Well the idea is that it’s like a cell phone, right? You want to leapfrog the landlines if you can. That’s the idea.

ISAACSON:            OK. Yuri, if I may, why is the constant reinvention of materials so important to the renewable energy solution? And I’ll use renewable there, but you can been correct it and say carbon-free if you want.

YURY GOGOTSI, PROFESSOR AND TRUSTEE CHAIR OF MATERIALS SCIENCE AND ENGINEERING AT DREXEL UNIVERSITY: One of the reasons is that we cannot move far beyond the current technologies without materials. You’re just talking about cell phones being a good example of nanotechnology. So it was enabled by new materials. For example, no one could imagine probably 20 years ago that a very thin glass which we all consider to be one of the most brittle materials would be able to be on screens on every cell phone. And the power of big computers can be squeezed into a small box that everyone probably in this room carries in the pocket.

[15:07] GOGOTSI: Very similar things happen with renewables, with energy storage, with energy generation. We need new catalysts, for example, to split water using sunlight and store hydrogen. We need new materials to make batteries or in general, energy storage devices. And moreover, there are many more sources of energy that we don’t use. For example, static electricity. Paul mentioned blue energy. Energy of waves, which is huge, can be collected. But each of us, when we move, will produce some charges, electrostatic charges and they get usually irritated for hours, say pants stick to our legs because of static electricity. But we can collect it and charge our cellphones. However we need new materials capable of doing this and that’s why really if we want to move forward to really groundbreaking revolution in the technologies, we need new materials.

ISAACSON: How important is the element of carbon to the creation of those new materials.

GOGOTSI: We’re all made of carbon. Wood we burn, made of carbon. Coal that’s burned, made of carbon. And it’s a much better way. Instead of burning coal, burning oil, burning gas – take carbon out of them and make it into new materials. For example, for storing electrical energy from renewable sources. And carbon is just simply the most versatile material. It comes as the hardest materials known to us, diamond, and soft electrically conductive graphite. Diamond is transparent, graphite has a metallic luster because it conducts electricity. Strongest nanotech fibers known to us are carbon nanotubes. So it’s just a very versatile element and also the most abundant. If we’re still burning oil, if we’re still burning coal, we’ll have plenty of carbon to design a world of carbon materials.

ISAACSON: Why is carbon so versatile? And if it is, why can’t we control it better?

GOGOTSI: Well again, versatile things are complex and I don’t want to go too deep into science and chemistry but many people in this room probably remember from high school chemistry that carbon atoms can rehybradize in different ways: they can form linear structure, planar like a graphene, and can form carbon nanotubes that you can see on screen now. And this is what allows us to make carbons with different properties. For example, you can see a carbon nanotube, which is 100,000 times thinner than a human hair. But this is the strongest fiber in tension that we know today.

ISAACSON:            You were talking about graphene, I think, a minute ago. I mean, what is it? How’s it used? Is that going to help us?

GOGOTSI: Well again, graphene is one of simply the most popular now-a-days materials. It’s a single sheet of carbon – so basically if you take graphite, you write with a pencil with a graphite lead, and you leave flakes of graphene on the surface. So it’s a very common material, but when separated from a large chunk of carbon into an atomically thin layer, it has wonderful properties. It’s highly conductive electrically, it’s light, it’s strong. So you can make structural materials, you can make a battery. It can conduct electricity so it can become battery materials or supercapacitors material, which is a kind of battery on steroids that you can work faster. And from graphene that you can – as you see from this picture on the screen right now, you can roll it in a seamless nanotube, you can stack it into graphite, or you can make spherical particles, fullerenes that are used, for example, to produce solar energy.

GOGOTSI: So it’s kind of a building block. And then I think actually you asked Paul about the definition of nanotechnology. I think nanotechnology is much designing with very very small particles, with atomically layers, with atomically thin tubes-

ISAACSON: And inventing new materials too.

GOGOTSI: Right. And of course you know, it’s like a building block. We need a lot of different building blocks, but then we can construct materials, whether it’s a battery or a material for a new super light, super strong jet liner from these structures.

ISAACSON:            So what do nanotubes do, or what do we want them to do?

GOGOTSI: Well we want to do many things. They can become, for example, cables that will be much lighter than steel or aluminum and can conduct electricity. They can make much faster electronic devices. But what is interesting: today, the most important bulk application nanotubes is additives to batteries. Just in China alone, about 400 tons of nanotubes are produced every year to add connectivity to batteries, make our batteries charging faster and working, living longer.

[20:17] ISAACSON: What else do we need to do to improve battery technology?

GOGOTSI: Well we need really redesigns of batteries. Today, battery is consisting of chunks of material and cathode, anode where ions move very slowly to store charges.

It’s very similar to traffic in New York City. I was getting through this traffic today in early afternoon. Luckily my son was driving, I was able to do something useful. But this traffic I think drives anyone crazy. But before that, we were moving on a highway for about an hour with a high speed. So many have current materials in lithium batteries, this is like traffic in New York for ions. It takes a long time to get through. That’s why it takes you about two hours to charge your computer battery. If we have nanomaterials where every ion has its nanochannels, like a nanotube or a graphene sheet, another carbon structure, they can move much faster. And you want to be able to charge your cell phone battery in minutes and it’s doable already today. But you also want to be able to charge electric car battery for example, what Elon Musk promised, the chairman of Tesla, within 5 to 10 minutes just the same time we fuel a tank of our car. And this is simply impossible without nanotechnology.

ISAACSON:            This is the New Jersey Turnpike theory of battery design. But help me understand it. It would charge faster because you’d have many, many more conduits for the ions?

GOGOTSI: Exactly. Because with nanotechnology and nanotubes, we can makes conduits for ions very very quickly go in, and the same carbon layers or nanotubes or other new materials will conduct electrons. So electrons go one lane, ions go another lane, and both can move faster.

ISAACSON:            Why are we doing this? What’s the hold up?

GOGOTSI: Well, there are a few things.

ISAACSON: What’s the EZPass

GOGOTSI: First, we need to develop those solutions for scientists. Second, we need industry to take on this because there are many great engineering scientific solutions. But when you have established industry, multi multi-billion dollar industry making lead acid battery, making lithium ion batteries, it’s very difficult to leapfrog it and get to a new technology, which may be better.

ISAACSON:            But we’re very good these days with disruptive technologies: leapfrogging, knocking old industries off the map. It would seem to me whoever creates a quick battery technology, I would want to invest.

GOGOTSI: It is happening. I know there is a company in Israel that’s already making these chargers, which are called supercapacitors that can charge your cell phone in five minutes. So it’s already existent technology. It just is coming, step-by-step, to a larger scale.

ISAACSON:            Let’s go to a bigger scale, which is airplanes.

GOGOTSI: Airplanes need to become lighter. Lighter the airplane, less fuel is used. By the way a Boeing 787 Dreamliner is already made more than 50% of composite materials, which use carbon fibers. And in this case for example what you see right now it’s electromagnetic shielding sheet instead of copper wires. We can use a coating which is at least 10 times thinner than a human hair, and that provides the same protection as shielding. So if you use these lighter materials, we will consume less energy. And this, again, important for the entire discussion. One way is to produce more energy, produce energy from clean sources. The other way is consume less by a smarter way of using it.

ISAACSON:            And so the way we would do it – to get back to the main topic here – is through new materials. For you, what is the holy grail of new materials?

WEISS: Yury’s MXene. I can say it, he can’t say it.

ISAACSON:            MXene, by the way, is spelled not as in the bistro on the Upper East. It’s spelled M-X-E-N-E.

GOGOTSI:   It’s spelled MXene like graphene, the same suffix here. But yes, MXenes were just on the cover of Chemical and Engineering News.

ISAACSON:            And why, it’s an improvement on graphene?

GOGOTSI: Right. It’s more conductive than graphene. It’s actually more transparent than graphene in thin layers. You can make transparent, conducting screens for cell phones, TVs.

ISAACSON: And is that also for transmission of electricity?

[24:56] GOGOTSI: Yes. Because when you transmit electricity, the higher resistance, the more you lose. More electricity you transform to heat. That’s why you charge your battery. It produces heat. You want to charge in five minutes? You get a very very efficient heater, but you store very little energy as electricity. You have a highly conducting material like MXene, you can do it better. Moreover, what is important: there are some exciting new nanomaterials, which are produced in nanoquantities. And this may be good for a very small electronic device. But if we need to build batteries, others, we need larger quantities. MXene is a scalable technology. For example-

ISAACSON:            What about for wearables?

GOGOTSI: Well this is another application. I already talked about collecting electricity, static electricity. Paul mentioned pies electric systems. For example, you can buy shoes that will light up as you walk here. Fine. But you can store this energy and really transform your clothes into your devices. You don’t need to carry a smartphone we went from a desktop computer to laptops to smartphones. Next will be it can be embedded in your jacket, in your sweatshirt. Your sweatshirt can be cooling or heating your body depending on the temperature outside. It can collect signal temperature of the body, pulse, and send actually a signal to your doctor in case of medical emergency. And this is what they are trying to do. And for this we need to gain lower dimensional materials – nanotube, graphene, MXene that will provide circuitry built into our clothes. And that’s why again this new material-

ISAACSON:            Could be almost like a semiconductor was to creating a new industry, this could do it.

GOGOTSI: Exactly, this new Internet of Things.

ISAACSON: What are the unintended consequences we should worry about?

WEISS: So there’s this incredible diversity of nanomaterials, and the way we’ve regulated those so far has been to treat them like chemicals. And it turns out there are not enough animals and there’s not enough money on the planet to do conventional testing of nanomaterials. So a new strategy we’ve adopted in California, the U.S., EU, and China, based on very current research is to categorize materials into this class materials’ appears to be safe in all these ways, go ahead and start commercialization with those. There other materials where we see some sign that we need to investigate further and usually when we do those first tests, there is a mixture. And so the two things we can do are separate the mixtures to figure out which of the components are the ones that are raising red flags and then also to do more detailed testing.

WEISS: And then there are others that we know have significant consequences, not all of which are bad-

ISAACSON: Give me an example of a bad consequence.

WEISS: Well look, the nanoscale is the scale of function in biology and that’s a good thing and a bad thing. It means we can interact with biological systems, we can try and treat tumors or diseases or understand how the brain works by connecting nanodevices to neurons and listen to them talking to each other. On the other hand, you know, a virus is a nanoparticle. And it can have significant consequences for us. One can make nanomaterials that include elements that that can interact with our cells.

ISAACSON:            Let me go back to batteries, What is it about the storage capacity of batteries. That seems to me – maybe I’m wrong – everything else is growing and doing well in leaps and bounds but the storage capacity of batteries hasn’t gotten much better. Is that a lithium ion question?

BANERJEE: I think the issue really is, how are you storing energy there? You’re storing it through chemical bonds

BANERJEE: This is actually an example to show you the time constant associated with even a very major scientific discovery permeating through, and you can see that the discovery was made in the ‘70s and ‘80s. But before it became a reality, it took another 10, 15 years-

ISAACSON:            I’m sorry, what was the discovery? That lithium?

BANERJEE: The fact that you could intercalate – you know, intercalation cathodes there. And what you see there that the first commercialization of this came really due to Sony who was able to put together the lithium cobalt oxide cathodes

BANERJEE: The price came down by a factor of almost 10. And now it’s of course beginning to asymptote in some sense. But this is-

[29:57] ISAACSON:           Is there another leap that’s going to happen – not a leap, because there is no leap on that chart. But is there another inflection point that’s going to happen, like we’ll discover something?

BANERJEE: Well this enabled your personal electronics essentially. Whether this will enable the electric vehicle or electricity storage in the grid is a different matter because-

ISAACSON:            But you talked about the intercalation too, cathodes that you used. That happened then, that caused this, right? Is there some other big advance you would hope for?

BANERJEE: Yeah. Well one is that super highway system to bring about in batteries but that would be one-

WEISS: Yeah, they could make the capacity keep going up. It’ll be like our laptops, we pay about the same for them every time we replace them. It’s just they do that much more each time. So-

BANERJEE: I’m just hoping for quantum effects.

GOGOTSI: One of the ways, for example – those are lithium batteries. Lithium has one electron to give away. So if you can get magnesium or aluminum, inexpensive elements, inexpensive materials, which can give two electrons per magnesium atom, three per aluminum atoms, we may potentially have battery able to store more. But we’re still trying to work out scientific problems and challenges that prevent us from using those elements.

ISAACSON: Like aluminum giving up its three

GOGOTSI: Three electrons

ISAACSON:            So that’s a that’s a real nanotech problem, is extracting an electron from aluminum, right?


BANJEREE: But zinc does

WEISS: You’ll get triple the capacity

ISAACSON:            Before we move on to the next section, I was wondering if either of you wanted to chime in on some of the things we’ve talked about.

WEISS: So really it comes down to three parts. There’s collection, there’s storage, and there’s efficiency. And in each of those, nano has a role to play. We have laboratory demonstrations of many possibilities and we can also calculate how far could we go if we figured out how to make these nanostructured materials that not only have much higher efficiency but also we’re after stability. In many cases, the bulk materials might be able to do something once but then they fall apart because of structural changes like lithium ion batteries there that are better solutions that don’t really work.

ISAACSON: Like on the Dreamliner

WEISS: Not that exact battery but there are others that could have much higher capacity. We know it’s possible, we just haven’t figured out yet how to accommodate mechanical changes, for instance, that accompany the function of that battery and they fall apart.

ISAACSON:            Sanjoy, let me turn to you because I want to look at energy technologies that have slowed down and not yet scaled up. What makes it difficult for renewables to compete with fossil fuels?

BANERJEE: So any energy technology has a long time constant penetrating and I think Yuri gave the example that even if something is invented to actually disrupt something in the energy sector, it takes a long time. And in particular, he gave the example of lead acid batteries. This is almost a century old technology, which is highly optimized. It’s a huge industry.

BANERJEE: Even if you bring in a new technology, the activation energy to get over that hump and be able to make it work is enormous. And so renewables face some of those same problems in the sense that oil, gas, natural gas have been around for a long time. They displaced other technologies like hydro in some sense over a long period of time. It’ll be a while. I think it’s sort of like the time constant is roughly 50 years. So I think between when renewables become economically attractive and when they actually are able to widely displace fossil fuels, they’ll probably be something like 25 to 50 years.

ISAACSON:            Are we going backwards a bit, perhaps because unconventional sources of natural gas and the ability like fracking to extract it have made natural gas so much cheaper?

BANERJEE: Well in certain parts of the world you’re absolutely right. Because you have to be able to compete economically. Otherwise it’s not going to happen. The price of solar for example is coming down rapidly, and even wind is already relatively low. So it’s relatively competitive in areas where there’s lots of wind and sun. In other areas, it’s not. Natural gas really is the competition right now. But there are vast areas in the world with high energy demand where that’s not true. That includes China and India. And there I think-

[35:13] ISAACSON:           China and India do not have the deposits of natural gas? Or they aren’t using the industry to extract it?

BANERJEE: I mean China has shale, but it’s not near water so it’s not easy to extract that. It can be done but it’s difficult. India does have some offshore resources but it’s not really of the same nature as here. So there’s a shortage there. And you could probably see things like renewables coming on faster in these areas where the natural gas supply is lower and the price is higher. It’s difficult to see that when the natural gas price is as low as it is today. Unless it’s mandated in some way like California or wherever.

ISAACSON:            Or mandated by putting a tax on carbon, would that be the easier way to do that?

BANERJEE: You could do that, yeah.

ISAACSON:            We use the word “renewables” as “all good”. I mean, that’s cool. It’s renewable. But is there much of a difference between renewable sources and clean energy sources?

WEISS: Well there is the issue of efficiency again. So burning is relatively inefficient. You’re going to get the energy out by some further secondary process whereas if we come up with the chemistry or biology that takes cellulose directly and is able to produce energy for us-

ISAACSON:            In other words, take a piece of wood and make energy out of it without burning it.

WEISS: Take it apart chemically and use the energy that’s stored in those parts that the tree created or some other plant and use them more directly to produce energy as you – I mean for a chemist, oxidation and burning are the same thing but you can do that much more efficiently, the way some bacteria do it. And so-

ISAACSON:            And by more efficiently you mean you put less carbon into the atmosphere?

WEISS: Well you get more energy out for the carbon you use, so effectively that’s putting less CO2 out into the environment. And so that’s really – I’m not sure people would call it a branch of nanotechnology, but there is an associated biology of teaching bacteria to do what we’d like them to do, whether it’s create a chemical that we could use as a fuel or create a drug through using the enzymes that they either have or could have if we reprogram them. And so their strategy strategies both to treat cellulose and other molecules that are present in abundance or also to take algae and have them collect sunlight and produce fuels through adding some biological capabilities to the repertoire they had to begin with.

ISAACSON:            And would this be a significant contributor to preventing climate change?

WEISS: It could be. Again, we have a potential portfolio and we’re very much at the start, and so we can choose where we invest our research money to advance those technologies and see how they’ll compete

ISAACSON:            Yuri, you were about to say something.

GOGOTSI: Well I just wanted to add to this that I think in all this portfolio of possible technologies, there is really a large role that government and regulations can play and there should be social request. You know, I’m old enough to remember smell of the cities and I sometimes go to countries that still use cars was no catalyst. There was no profit for any car company. We all pay more for cars because there is a catalyst here. Gasoline became more expensive because there is no lead in the fuel because of poisoned catalyst.

GOGOTSI: But it’s a different air. We breathe air which is really so clean and enjoyable to breathe compared to places as you go in some developing countries when people still use ethyl lead fuels and have no catalyst. Same, many of the cities were so polluted and smoked by chemical metallurgy industry that it was hard to breathe. I actually studied metallurgical engineering in Ukraine and as a student I spent a month on a metallurgical plant. The river floating by was red. Air was sometimes yellow, sometimes grey. And coming back, if you wear white shirt you would basically have it all covered by dust in the air. And regulations change, yes certain things become more expensive. But the price of better health, better air, quality of life is important. So I think without really push from government, without regulations it’s very difficult to break the cycle if they all tell you, “Look it’s cheaper to burn coal, let’s burn it.” And China is actually doing it because some of the most polluted big cities are now in China, like Beijing.

[40:12] ISAACSON:           “Doing it” meaning moving away to clean energy.

GOGOTSI:   For example they switch all school buses to electrical buses. Electrical transportation, supercapacitors, batteries, hybrid buses are being introduced in many many cities here.

WEISS: Well Los Angeles in the ’70s was like what you described, and through a series of steps including having special mixtures for gas for which we pay more, we can now breathe with three times as many cars on the road. So we have a lot of ties to Beijing where they have a similar basin that collects pollution and makes it sometimes impossible to breathe and you can taste it on your tongue. There we have people who go back and forth and try and learn from what we did over the last 40 years to make-

ISAACSON:            Oh I can remember the dramatic change. Pretty quick in Los Angeles over a 12-year period. I remember when it was all smog.

WEISS: That’s right, and still going. We’re still taking the what’s left in terms of what damage is there, we still are taking those out. And that’s something – well people have to measure what’s in Beijing, that’s the start of it – but they’ll Institute, I think, some of those same strategies.

ISAACSON:            One of the things Yuri already talked about is doing it through regulation, which is OK if you can have a government that’s willing to do it that way. Another way to do it is just to put a price on what you don’t want to have exist.

ISAACSON:            But let me ask it in a scientific way. If you were going to try to incent a development of industries such as clean industries, would the simplest way to do it be not regulation but just saying here’s a blanket price on carbon. Would that help science progress better?

BANERJEE: I was at a very interesting discussion once between John Podesta, at that time who was-

ISAACSON:            He still is John Podesta, despite what happened to him.

BANERJEE: And Steve Chu. Steve Chu was then the Secretary for Energy. And what was interesting is they were quite polarized in some sense, that John Podesta thought that the solutions came to climate change through policy. And Steve thought it would come through technology. So they were sort of polarized-

ISAACSON:            Well I was actually asking the Steve Chu question, because when he was Energy Secretary, he said, “If you’re going to make it come through science, just put a price on things that you don’t want.”

BANERJEE: Right. But I think there’s some intermediate position, like everything else.

GOGOTSI:   I think it’s a combination of both.

BANERJEE: You do need regulation, I do think.

ISAACSON:            Paul, what other liquid – I mean we need some liquid fuels, right? For cars – I know we’ll have electric or whatever. What other things have a potential of scaling up?

WEISS: Well it’s really how we make those fuels. So if we you know if we are able to start from plants and produce them efficiently or have algae that collects sunlight then we have a shot at making those fuels on our own without digging up oil or burning coal. You know, people are trying to make the bugs, as I was describing earlier that you could put liquids down the pipes so that we could distribute those in analogy to what we’re able to do now.

ISAACSON:            You have a chart up there and I was just wondering what issues you have making those better. I mean it just doesn’t seem to be scaling up that well.

WEISS: Well as I mentioned, for solar we know it’s going to be going up, where there are more efficient ways to use it than we do now. And that would increase its contribution without increasing the amount of it we actually had to make and transport. Wind we know it’s going to keep growing and it’s really just a matter of production and policy to put it in place-

ISAACSON: How important is the grid system to allowing us to decentralize-

WEISS: So the grid will be incredible – what happens the grid will be incredibly interesting. Right now we depend upon central facilities for our power. But if we all have those tiles on our roof when it’s sunny-

ISAACSON:            I wanted one of the ones where you get the static electricity off your trousers.

WEISS: You’re probably not going to power your house with that but you may be able to recharge your phone. But the grid then becomes more interactive

WEISS: And even off the grid, as Sanjoy was saying earlier – we have experiments going on where there are these communities on islands or above the Arctic Circle that are off the grid. And so you know the Arctic ones are kind of interesting because they have solar power available only part of the year. And so they need storage in some form or another. And those are really laboratories for how we might consider distributed grid.

[45:07] ISAACSON:           If you have a distributed grid like you just talked about or a crowdsourced grid even, how much would that do to help us consume less energy or at least emit less carbon?

WEISS: Well I think that the transmission issue is maybe the biggest one. We lose I think it’s 30% of the power just in transmission from the power-

BANERJEE: Yeah, of that order.

ISAACSON:            So in other words, we’re talking about a potential – we won’t say 30%, but at least a 20% leap if you could get rid of the transmission-

WEISS: Whatever fraction doesn’t use that transmission. If it’s just residential, you had that up before, that’s a fairly small fraction. A factory may still need to be powered by a central facility if they don’t have their own.


GOGOTSI: I think there is another very important aspect of this. It’s energy security. How many years ago did you have a major blackout in New York? 6? 7?

ISAACSON:            You’re not counting superstorm Sandy but you have to-

GOGOTSI:   Yes. After Sandy. OK. Imagine now, two weeks without electricity: terrorist act, natural disaster like Sandy, or something else here. Without ever being able to withdraw money from credit card, without being able to charge computer, elevators, it stops everything here. Your life pretty much stops. This country can be destroyed staying two weeks without electricity. And the only way to do it is to decentralize the grid. Then it is stable for most of the country when they can produce electricity on the roof of every single family home in America. When we can store it and we can produce enough electricity to power cell phone just simply by walking, by having solar everywhere. So I think there is this aspect which is also very very important.

ISAACSON:            You know you can save up to 20% of the energy, but you could also make it so much safer – just like the model of the Internet, it doesn’t go down as easily because it’s totally distributed or decentralized.

ISAACSON: Let me ask – this is somewhat controversial, I mean would love to hear what you have to say, but there are people who feel it’s controversial to think that we can engineer our way out of the climate change crisis. That instead, we should be reducing our use of fuels, we should be stopping all fossil fuel use, and that somehow trying to mitigate the carbon problem by inventing new technologies – there’s been some resistance to that.

WEISS: It’s all part of one big equation. As we said, there is producing energy, and we have ways to do that, that reduce the amount of carbon we produce. There’s storage that we can use. And then there is efficiency. And nano has a role to play in all of those. And as you saw we have to go into deep dives in terms of the science and engineering on one hand, but then like a chess game, look several steps ahead to see where they might go. And that’s not just economics and policy, it’s as you brought up safety, manufacturability as Yuri mentioned. There are a lot of things that have to happen between innovations in our laboratory. But all of those areas can be affected by what we do. So I would say we can innovate and engineer as part of the solution. And another part of the solution will be efficiency from the point of view of reducing what we do.

ISAACSON:            Is there some virtue in trying to cut back on our energy consumption, even if we engineer ways that energy consumption isn’t as harmful to the environment?

BANERJEE: Well I think it’s happening naturally. People are reducing their energy needs, you can just see that in the United States. So also urbanization to some extent helps with that, because if you look at New York City, in terms of the national picture, we consume a lot less electricity per capita being in New York.

ISAACSON:            And certainly less gasoline or oil.

BANERJEE: For sure that. But I think also if you see the electric – the most difficult problem is transportation in many ways. Because you can control centralized carbon dioxide production. But everybody is driving around and producing carbon dioxide and other pollutants. That’s the most difficult. So I think that transition though has to come probably from some form of electric vehicle. That might happen quicker than we imagine.

[50:14] ISAACSON:           And what are you doing in New York? To implement a new battery idea?

BANERJEE: Well, of course we’d like to use Yury’s new materials. But in the meantime, we are using some of these materials like carbon nanotubes to provide pathways for electrons to get the mark. One of the things that we’ve done is spun off a company, which tries to capitalize on zinc, which has two electrons, and manganese dioxide. I mean you know them in your Duracell batteries but they aren’t rechargeable of course. So to make it rechargeable. And the primary use is to support renewables at a very low cost. In order to make a battery which can be used for this purpose, you need the cost down to about the cost of pumped hydro, which is roughly 2¢/kWh. That’s an incredibly difficult target for a storage system.

ISAACSON:            So let me use that as a springboard to ask each of you sort of a bigger concluding question. What radical game changers do you see – I guess I would ask specifically in transportation fuels, because that’s a hardest – but some radical game changer that you could see happening ten years from now, maybe twenty, that would change the way we use and produce energy?

BANERJEE: Yury’s super fast charging super capacitor or whatever.

ISAACSON:            But then we would have to go to an all-electric system. That only works for batteries, right?

BANERJEE: Well it impacts transportation, it impacts transportation hugely if you could do that.

GOGOTSI:   It can impact transportation. But there are also – I think it will be diverse in many ways. Let me just again take China as an example. They built a network of very fast railroads connecting all the big cities. So a lot of people who were traveling by other means of flying, traveling by buses now take the trains. There are supercapacitors buses that actually serve as public transportation. They cannot travel for 15 minutes, but they charge at every bus stop. And then supercapacitors can survive like a million cycles. They provide very convenient urban transportation. And there are regular electric cars and hybrid cars on the road. So this is one of the ways to slowly switch to electrically based technology here. I think it’s really important and this is going to happen. But for this, again we need new materials. We need materials which are lighter, we need materials which can store energy, we need materials can generate energy from sun and wind. And also in many cases to say what you mentioned here, if we have much better insulating materials, not for our clothes but also for our houses, we will need less energy to heat them or cool them in summertime. So I guess I think really with the new generation of materials will be able to solve many of the current problems.

WEISS: I think to summarize, the answer isn’t there’s going to be one big jump and all our problems will go away. In fact there will be many many different approaches that will each help in their own way, we’ll come up with more efficient electronics, more efficient insulation, more efficient energy production, more efficient transmission and storage. And in all those ways, we have a possibility of chipping away at the amount of energy that we need, the amount of energy we use, and also how we make it.

ISAACSON:            Recent solar costs have fallen below the cost of coal and still using mostly non nano-based tech? I guess I’ll simplify how do you use nanotech to really bring down the cost of solar panels?

WEISS: So there are a number of different strategies for how to make solar cells. Some are incredibly expensive to make and you’d only consider them for a satellite because what really matters is how much power you produce per weight and you don’t need those in your home. What you ultimately want is – I mean the limit is a paint, that’s as efficient as it could possibly be in producing power, and everything else is somewhere in between. And so we could certainly imagine more than doubling the efficiency we have in current solar cells and there’s a wonderful chart-

ISAACSON:            Doubling? That would do it.

WEISS: It would make a big difference and we’ve seen those kind of rises over time. Again, the materials question comes up. There are commercial solar panels that use different materials and they all are priced to be the same per amount of power. But if people are interested, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory has a chart they constantly update with record efficiency for each technology. It’s kind of fun to watch those efficiencies rise over time and they do the test

[55:08] ISAACSON:           What are the biggest roadblocks to a better energy future based on nanotechnology? Are they technological or have they become political now, the roadblocks?”

GOGOTSI: I think there are many technological roadblocks but many of them can be removed with the right policy, with support for research and development in introduction of new technologies here. So I think we can develop the best possible technologies at universities and labs. But if there is no support to commercialization introduction, little will happen – at least not in the US.

WEISS: The United States isn’t the only place in the world working on these projects. It’s just will give up our efforts and in some areas, leadership in the field and the technologies developed elsewhere and we’ll later be buying them.

ISAACSON:            What is the likelihood that China and other countries will be the leaders in energy technology and not the United States based on the way things are going?

WEISS: Well there’s already more investment there I believe, and increasing over time. The production of solar cells is largely there and in different areas and different materials, different laboratories and companies have shots at leadership.

BANERJEE: I think that China is more likely to be where there will be breakthroughs, but you can never know where there’s going to be a breakthrough. Throwing money at a problem doesn’t necessarily make for a breakthrough.

ISAACSON:            Doesn’t hurt.

BANERJEE: It doesn’t hurt, but some of the strangest things happen where there’s almost no money thrown at it. And somebody once came to me and said “We’ll give you lots of money to make a substitute for cobalt in the lithium battery.” And I told them – told “them” because it was a big company – that it can’t be guaranteed. So the amount of money you put in doesn’t really matter. It’s going to take time.

ISAACSON:            Final words, Yury?

GOGOTSI:   I think in reality, technologies developed elsewhere, or basic science done elsewhere to a large extent become consumed and used in all the world. Yes, I wish we would have leadership in this country, but we will benefit from technologies developed in other countries. At the same time, for economic prosperity of us, our children are living here; we need to stay leaders in technology. I don’t know whether it will take a shock like for example Soviets putting Sputnik on the orbit to make a major change or just next election. But I think things need to be changed to keep the US at the cutting edge of energy technology in particular, and technology in general.

ISAACSON:            And I do think that is a question of being both leaders in technology and leaders in policy because one of the things you’ve all said tonight is those are all woven together. Paul, Yury, Sanjoy, thank you all very much.


The Big, The Small, and The Complex
Much Ado About Nearly Nothing: Nanotech And The Future Of Energy

Nanotechnology has found its way into a wide range of consumer products, from cell phones to odor-resistant socks. But is this tiny tech up to one of the biggest challenges of our time: meeting the energy demands of an exploding population on a warming planet? In this program, world-class nanoscientists and environmental leaders explore how advances in nanotechnology are spurring spectacular innovations — including lightweight “wonder materials,” vital energy-storage technologies, and new sources of renewable energy — that promise to redefine the very future of energy. This program is part of the “Big, the Small, and the Complex,” series sponsored by The Kavli Foundation and The Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters. The Kavli Prize recognizes scientists for their seminal advances in astrophysics, nanoscience, and neuroscience.  Learn More

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