Improve Energy Distribution with Nanotechnology

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

Generating energy is just the first step in an energy system. The second important step is getting that energy to those who need it. Nanotechnology is helping the electric transmission grid in several ways.

The electrical resistance in conventional electric transmission lines causes power losses when converting electrical power into heat. Reducing the electrical resistance would cut the losses in transmission lines and allow electricity from power plants to be used in more widespread locations.

Several groups are using nanotechnology to improve the electric transmission:

Researchers at Rice University are working to develop wires containing carbon nanotubes that would have significantly lower resistance than the wires currently used in the electric transmission grid. The so-called armchair quantum wire would be composed of carbon nanotubes woven into a cable.

The term armchair comes from the armchair shape seen in the lattice of metallic-type carbon nanotubes. The term quantum is used because electrons move from one carbon nanotube in the wire to the next by a quantum mechanical method called tunneling. This method is the quantum analogy of walking toward a hill and finding a tunnel that allows you to pass under, saving the effort of climbing over it.


When carbon nanotubes are created, they appear as a tangled web. One challenge in making quantum wire is that the carbon nanotubes must be untangled so they can be woven to form the wire. Recently, researchers at Rice University have made improvements in separating nanotubes using an acid to produce fluid dopes (a solution), similar to the dopes used in the industrial spinning of fibers.