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Novel Ceramic/Metallic Materials July 2014 Viewpoints

Technology Analyst: Alastair Cunningham

Improvements in Piezoelectric-Nanogenerator Efficiency

Why is this topic significant?

Power from piezoelectric materials—materials capable of converting kinetic energy into electricity or vice versa—traditionally suffers from efficiency issues. However, the technique, as a result of recent technological developments, is enabling the capture of increasingly significant proportions of waste kinetic energy and could potentially power a range of small-scale devices and systems such as networks of sensors not connected to grid power.

Description

Piezoelectric nanogenerators potentially remove the need for external circuits or batteries—particularly for the delivery of power to small-scale devices where power outputs are low. Scientists at the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST), led by Professor Keon Jae Lee, recently published the results of their research into the fabrication of large (square-centimeter-scale), piezoelectric nanogenerators. The KAIST team developed a laser lift-off process that enables it to transfer a high-quality thin film of lead zirconate titanate (the dominant piezoelectric material) from bulk-sapphire substrates to plastic substrates. When the researchers place the resulting structure under slight mechanical deformation, it generates a power of ~300 watts per square meter—enough to turn on an array of 100 LEDs. In addition to having advantages that link to ease of fabrication, the KAIST nanoscale generator exhibits world-record power-conversion efficiency—about 40 times higher than in similar piezoelectric systems.

Implications

Ease of fabrication and improvements in efficiency are the two clear advances that result from this research. The use of standard piezoelectric materials shows how improving processing techniques can prove extremely important in terms of final performance. Both fabrication and efficiency previously proved problematic for researchers in the field and limited the use of piezoelectric materials to niche applications. Professor Lee revealed to me in an email exchange that KAIST has a patent that covers the techniques that he and his team are developing and that he hopes to license this technology to an industrial partner within the next two years. He is currently in discussions with at least one company and is searching for others that could aid in the commercialization of these techniques and materials.

Impacts/Disruptions

Piezoelectric materials, such as the ones under development at KAIST, could potentially find application as an energy source for sensor networks or for implantable biomedical devices. Significant further development would be necessary before developers could achieve regulatory approval and these materials could find use in bioelectronics devices for humans. However, Professor Lee and his team are already taking steps in this direction—using their expertise to fabricate self-powered piezoelectric energy-harvesting cardiac pacemakers on flexible substrates for trials with rats. Such a self-powered device could bring substantial benefits to the field of health care—removing the need to perform replacement surgery on patients with pacemakers every seven to ten years. In addition to developing bioelectronics implants, the KAIST researchers are also working on the fabrication of three-dimensional stacks of piezoelectric materials that could potentially power more demanding applications.

Scale of Impact

  • Low
  • Medium
  • High
The scale of impact for this topic is: High

Time of Impact

  • Now
  • 5 Years
  • 10 Years
  • 15 Years
The time of impact for this topic is: 5 Years to 10 Years

Opportunitites in the following industry areas:

Automotive, medicine and health, consumer products

Relevant to the following Explorer Technology Areas:

Novel Nanoparticles That Enable the Production of Cheaper and Cleaner Biofuel

Why is this topic significant?

Biofuel as a renewable source of power is likely to play an increasingly important role in the future energy landscape. Technological developments, resulting in both cost-efficiency improvements and cleaner fuel, will enable the commercialization of machinery and industrial processes that use biofuels as their primary source of energy.

Description

Scientists at the US Department of Energy's Ames Laboratory recently published the results of their research into novel multifunctional metallic-nanoparticle catalysts that they report enable the efficient and relatively clean production of biofuels. The Ames researchers are focusing on green diesel—produced by refining fats and oils from, for example, algae—rather than biodiesel, which involves reacting biomaterial with alcohols to produce an entirely different type of fuel. Green diesel exhibits a variety of advantages over biodiesel, particularly in terms of stability and energy density. The principal difference between green diesel and standard petrodiesel is that green diesel comprises material from recently living biomass rather than forming over millions of years. The two forms are otherwise chemically indistinguishable.

The multifunctional material under study at Ames comprises amine functional groups that sequester fatty acids and nickel nanoparticles that then catalyze the breakdown of these acids into green diesel. Nickel-nanoparticle catalysts are significantly cheaper than the standard noble-metal catalysts that are generally in use in fuel-refining processes. The scientists were able to achieve further enhancements to the process through the use of iron-nanoparticle catalysts—yielding faster conversion rates, higher-quality fuels, and yet greater cost efficiency.

Implications

Because global energy use is set to soar in the coming decades, use of alternative sources of power will prove necessary to satisfy these demands. A wide array of energy sources—each suited to particular geographies, applications, political policies, and technological capabilities—is likely to result. Despite its current contribution of comparatively little to the overall energy market, biofuel, as a 100% renewable source, will undoubtedly play an increasingly integral role. Materials such as those under development at Ames Laboratory will enable green diesel to compete with more traditional power-generation sources. The Ames research illuminates the fundamental science behind green diesel formation. With additional development, the materials should be scalable for industrial processes also.

Impacts/Disruptions

In commercial terms, green diesel possesses several advantages over alternative fuels. For example, in addition to being 100% renewable, green diesel is potentially cleaner than petrodiesel, and its use would require no changes to fuel infrastructure or vehicle technology. However, despite these advantages, green diesel still results in the emission of greenhouse gases—which means that in the long term, as power generation shifts toward CO2-free sources, the fuel is perhaps not the most sustainable option. Green diesel will also face substantial competition from other energy technologies, ranging from traditional fossil fuels to nuclear and alternative renewables such as photovoltaics or wind power.

Scale of Impact

  • Low
  • Medium
  • High
The scale of impact for this topic is: Medium

Time of Impact

  • Now
  • 5 Years
  • 10 Years
  • 15 Years
The time of impact for this topic is: 5 Years to 10 Years

Opportunitites in the following industry areas:

Automotive, oil and gas, energy

Relevant to the following Explorer Technology Areas: