Nanotechnology remains a buzzword that carries a promise (though occasionally a somewhat frightening promise) of great potential. Recent news from a company called Industrial Nanotech, Inc. announced that the company is developing an insulation material that will generate electricity.
The material is literally sprayed on to any surface that is hot, and it absorbs the heat, converting a percentage of it to electricity. As long as there is a difference in temperature between the stuff it's touching and the air around it, it will generate power. The most obvious applications, of course, are the inner workings of powerplants and heating pipes. But there's a lot of heat energy lost in a lot of places, so applications could abound (think about your laptop, for example.)
The press release says that "instead of just helping conserve energy (this material) could create energy." But no one should expect that they are going to be able to run their furnace on the energy generated between the heated interior and the cold exterior. No matter how efficient the material turns out to be, there are always some energy losses in every system. Turning heat into electricity is an inherently inefficient process, because heat is a very low order form of energy, while electricity is very ordered energy.
No specifics are provided about the amount of electricity that might be able to be produced, whether it is watts or only just milliwatts per square foot, so it is difficult to predict how significant this development may be. And even if the productivity of this technology is reasonable, the cost per watt may still be prohibitively expensive. The method of application, however, suggests that installation, at least, will be cheap.
The larger significance lies in widening the expectations for materials to cease to be inert objects and instead to begin to contribute to our needs for energy. Whether this is a better means of turning surfaces into energy collectors than thin-film solar, or some other technology, remains to be seen.
Paint roller via Photocappy on Flickr
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