Sunday, November 13, 2005

Energy Applications of Nanotechnology - Part 3: Nanopowders and Electrodes


In today's installment of our irregularly continuing focus on energy applications of nanotechnologies, we turn to metalic nanopowders. The Energy Blog posted yesterday about QuantumSphere, a Costa Mesa, CA based nanotech company who's product line includes nickel-cobalt alloy nanopowders that behave like platinum yet cost 80% less than the precious metal. Platinum, a common catalyst in electrodes, currently costs around $75.00/gram in bulk and accounts for up to 40% of the cost of small batteries and fuel cell. The use of the metal has been a major obstacle to lowering the price of fuel cells to competitive levels.

QuantumSphere's alloy, which now sells for only $15.00/gram, could greatly reduce the cost of small batteries or fuel cells for laptops, cell phones, digital cameras and hearing aids and if their technology can be appropriately scaled, could help larger fuel cells for stationary or transport applications break through cost barriers associated with the use of platinum.

According to the Energy Blog, most of QuantumSphere's 11 employees are scientists. So far, the company has grown without venture capital and has started selling its products this year. The company could possibly break even in 2006. QuantumSphere was recently selected for a 2005 Technology Innovation of the Year award by research organization Frost & Sullivan.

The company claims they are the leading manufacturer of metallic nanopowders for markets demanding exacting material quality and performance. In their words:

"Our exclusive manufacturing process provides consistent and narrow particle size distribution, low levels of agglomeration and impurities, a custom-tailored oxide shell thickness, and the highest purity metallic nanopowders on the market that are easier to transport and handle. The company accomplishes this without compromising its commitment to the environment and the community. No other company offers these performance advantages."

According to QuantumSphere, their technologies applications include:

  • Electrodes in batteries, fuel cells and water hydrolysis/hydrogen production, where huge surface area and greater surface energy combined equals orders of magnitude Increase in reactive performance.

  • Coatings and sealants, where enhanced performance characteristics including higher conductivity, magnetic, anti-corrosive, increased durability, antimicrobial, abrasion resistance and radio frequency shielding are desirable.

  • Filtration of solutions or gases to remove bacteria, viruses, bio-hazards and pollutants in gas separation, biological protection systems and chemical catalysis.

  • Biomedical to improve imaging of internal organs and tumors, bio-hazard protection, targeting drug delivery and tumor eradication and as a antimicrobial.

  • Vehicles, where replacing platinum with nickel nanoparticles in lean-burn diesel engine catalytic materials and in catalytic emissions controls.

  • QuantumSphere now has three process reactors in operation and a fourth one scheduled to come on line in December of this year. The first two are small units that are dedicated to research and development and the third is capable of producing a few pounds per day. The new system will be a full production operation capable of producing between two and four hundred pounds per month depending on the material being produced.

    According to the Energy Blog, the process itself is an adaptation of the gas phase condensation method combined with proprietary trade secrets and intellectual property. Gas phase condensation, one of the original nano- particle technologies, has been developed into a continuous, fully automated manufacturing process. Metal wire is fed into the vacuum chamber and melted on inter-metallic composite boats heated by electricity to a very high temperature. [See graphic below:]



    For more on QuanutmSphere's nanopowder production process, check out the Energy Blog's post or visit QuantumSphere's website.


    One critical roadblock to mass deployment of fuel cells has been the reliance of platinum as a catlyst in low-temperature operating fuel cells as well as electrolyzers to make the hydrogen fuel. QuantumSphere's Ni/Co allow nanopowder catalyst is five times cheaper than platinum which could translate to a substantial reduction in the total cost of devices previously dependent on the precious metal. This technology could therefore dramatically accelerate the commercialization and deployment of fuel cells and bateries which currently utilize a platinum catalyst. If the process can be adequately scaled - it seems like their current applications will be in micro-devices, not larger devices such as PEM fuel cells for transport, etc. - this could help fuel cells achieve the mass deployment all the hype seems to assume they will. Without solving the platinum problem, we will never see fuel cells in wide spread use.

    Resources:
  • QuantumSphere's website

  • The Energy Blog: Nanopowders Could Revolutionize Electrodes


  • Previous Energy Applications of Nanotechnology Installments:
  • Part 1: Quantum Dots and Photovoltaics

  • Part 2: Electron Thermotunneling and the Power Chip

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