A mixed crowd of engineering students and curious members of the public were treated to a lecture by renowned nanotechnology expert Ling Zang at the Taylorsville Redwood Campus on Wednesday, November 16.
Zang, a University of Utah USTAR professor of nanotechnology, offered attendees a glimpse of a future where manufacturing on a nanometer scale will provide solutions to our society’s growing energy needs.
“This topic is pretty big, so it’s pretty difficult for me to fit it fifty minutes. It’s actually a full semester course,” said Zang at the opening of his presentation.
With that caveat out of the way, he launched into a discussion about the basics of nanotechnology. He explained that the field covers a very broad range of approaches to research and applications, but the main defining characteristic is that work takes place on the nanometer (one billionth of a meter) scale.
“It’s pretty much about three ‘Ms: manipulating, measuring and manufacturing on the nanometer scale,” said Zang. “With the three “Ms, people will be able to improve and optimize materials, devices or systems.”
After defining nanotechnology for the audience, Zang segued into a discussion about specific energy and environmental issues that plague us today and will threaten us tomorrow. He spoke about the drawbacks of fossil fuels and the implications of peak oil.
He then moved to the body of the presentation, where he showcased current nanotechnology research and how it might lead to practical solutions to these problems.
Zang started this section by talking about an “artificial leaf” which functions in a way similar to photosynthesis. When placed in water and exposed to sunlight, a nanocatalyst is used to separate hydrogen from oxygen. This artificial structure basically turns sunlight into fuel.
He continued by talking at length about the direct conversion of sunlight into energy through solar cells. Solar energy has been around for decades, but the current technology relies on silicon, which makes it relatively expensive.
Zang discussed the potential for polymer to be a means of capturing solar energy and showed how researchers have developed cheap house paints which can do just that. The downside to this technology is that it’s far less efficient than traditional solar cells. Zang explained that the current challenge is to find a way to transport the charge after it has been captured.
Zang also touched on the potential of nanotechnology to bring us high efficiency batteries, cheaper lighting through LEDs and smart windows which can adjust their opacity depending on the season.
He concluded the lecture by calling on Utah citizens to take the lead in renewable energy research.
“In the state of Utah, we have a huge amount of area with sufficient sunshine,” he said. “It’s a good state to be a model for solar cell renewable energy.”