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Nanotechnology Contributions to Alternative Automotive Fuels

By Earl Boysen, Nancy C. Muir, Desiree Dudley, Christine Peterson

Nanotechnology holds great promise for reducing the amount of fossil fuels that are used in cars, trucks, and other motor vehicles. Not only will nanotechnology be used to reduce our dependence of foreign sources of oil, but also to lessen the environmental impact on the air we breathe.

This may not come as a big surprise to you, but air pollution from cars and trucks can be a threat to your health, as indicated by this statement from the American Heart Association: “The scientific evidence linking air pollution to heart attacks, strokes and cardiovascular death has ‘substantially strengthened,’ and people, particularly those at high cardiovascular risk, should limit their exposure.”

A very fine particle called PM2.5 seems to be one of the most important links between air pollution and cardiovascular disease. The major source for PM2.5 is fossil fuel emissions from cars, power plants, and other forms of combustion such as forest fires.

The longer the exposure to PM2.5, the worse the health risks, which include inflammation and irritation of nerves in lungs and inhibited circulation. Inhaling PM2.5 can cause heart attacks, strokes, and in some cases, death.

To avoid exposure to PM2.5 you can stay inside and out of traffic on days with high pollution levels, wait for our governments to clean up the air by passing legislation, or move to the country. As none of these options is practical, you might take heart at the promise nanotechnology holds for reducing the amount of air contaminants produced by vehicles.

Nanotechnology can help provide alternatives to burning fossil fuels to run our cars in a few ways:

  • Nanomaterials in hybrid car batteries: This solution would increase the number of ions that can attach to the electrodes in the battery, therefore increasing the power density of the battery. This new type of battery should improve the performance and reduce the price of lower-pollution plug-in hybrid vehicles, as well as pollution-free plug-in electric vehicles.

  • Nanotubes in ultracapacitors: This method would increase the number of electrons that can be stored in a capacitor, increasing the amount of electrical power available from ultracapacitors to about the same as similarly sized batteries. Because capacitors can be recharged much more quickly than batteries, using ultracapacitors in plug-in electric vehicles would shorten the time needed to recharge, making the recharge process as quick as filling a gas tank.

  • Nanomaterials to make fuel cells more practical: Nanomaterials are being used to improve the efficiency of the catalyst used in fuel cells, which allows less platinum to be used, thus lowering the cost of fuel cells. Also, graphene is showing promise as a storage medium for hydrogen and could be used for lightweight hydrogen fuel tanks in cars powered by pollution-free hydrogen fuel cells.