Nanotech could solve oil and other issues

Twenty billion dollars. Yikes. That is a lot of money we have invested in rebuilding Iraq.

Why, for that much, the U.S. could have bought a $650,000 Ferrari Enzo Coupe for every one of the 30,700 residents of the Yukon, Canada, although I’m not sure they have roads there. Or the federal government could have acquired Gannett, the giant newspaper mother company and turn it into a propaganda organ — like Pravda in the old USSR, but with Snapshots.

Then again, the country could have pumped that much money into energy-related nanotechnology research to help ensure that future generations will never have to fight another Middle East war. But — nah. Too outrageous…

Several years ago, Congress was debating President Bush’s $20.3 billion Iraq reconstruction proposal. The legislators poked through every item, wondering, for instance, if we should really spend $4 million so Iraq would have telephone area codes.

But Congress didn’t talk back then about a different way to spend that kind of money — a way that might have given the United States a far greater long-term return than simply putting back together a nation we had clobbered. A way, in fact, that could have freed us from dependency on Middle Eastern oil. A way that could have rendered Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Kuwait and the rest of the region as economically inert as the Pennsylvania coal fields.

How? By pumping $20 billion a year into nanotech, which looks like the best exit ramp out of the Oil Age

Nanotechnology — the science of building new materials and microscopic devices one atom at a time — has the potential to make solar energy viable on a massive scale, allow hydrogen and methane to replace gasoline in cars, and make vehicles and planes far lighter so they use less fuel. The research has started already quite a few years ago, and tangible results are maybe not yet plentiful, but experts have said for several years now that it’s time to dive in.

“We need President Trump to stand up and do a man-on-the-moon type of thing,” says Jim Von Ehr, CEO of nanotech company Zyvex, referring to President Kennedy’s 1961 speech that set the goal of putting a man on the moon by 1970. Von Ehr heads The NanoEnergy Project, a policy group that gave a report to Congress already several years ago.

In nanotech, he says, “There’s stuff we know about, stuff we suspect, and stuff we don’t yet have a clue about. More money would accelerate what’s going on.”

The U.S. government isn’t blind to this. It has already authorized more than $5 billion since 2010 for nanotech research. However, only a small part of that has gone to energy-related nanotech. The rest has flowed to nanotech that will make everything from better computer chips to better underwear. That’s all good — if there’s a way to make wrinkle-proof boxers, the world would no doubt be a better place. But the implications in energy might be the most profound.

Oil is why we have soldiers in the Middle East — maybe not directly, but we have to make sure the oil keeps flowing, so we meddle there, and that makes people there ticked off at us, so they join radical groups and get into terrorism, which makes us meddle some more, and on and on, until it gets really ugly. Right there, the cost is huge — some $100 billion for Iraq and the rest of the Middle East, not to mention lives lost.

One-third of the U.S. trade deficit is from imported oil. We buy 40% of the world’s oil production. On top of that, you’ve got your air pollution problem and global warming, and you’ve got your problem of what we’ll do if the oil wells run dry halfway through the century.

If nanotech could lead to zero dependence on foreign oil, it’s as good an investment as the nation could make. Early research, for instance, shows that nanotech could help make solar panels as cheap as paint — in fact, it might even make solar paint. A couple of decades from now, you might slap a little Benjamin Moore solar eggshell white on your house and run your major appliances off it.

“We’re going to use this material to coat all our buildings,” says Josh Wolfe, managing partner of investment firm Lux Capital. “Solar energy technology will get 100 times more efficient over the long term.” Companies such as Nanosys are already working in this direction. Nanotech could make catalyst devices that could cheaply and efficiently turn hard-to-handle natural gas into methane and then into liquid methanol, a fuel that could be used like gasoline.

Scientists believe carbon nanotubes could be made into hydrogen fuel tanks, so you could fill your car with hydrogen as easily as you fill it with gasoline. And no — that doesn’t mean we’ll end up with millions of Hindenburgs driving around, each capable of igniting into a ball of fire in any fender bender. Contrary to popular belief, the Hindenburg didn’t burn because of the hydrogen in the balloon — it burned because of its iron oxide and aluminum coating. The list goes on.

Nanotechnology is like the transistor right after it was invented. No one then had any idea it would lead to supercomputers that could predict the weather, send e-mails or create musical greeting cards. No one knows nanotech’s ultimate effect on energy. Oil won’t go away. But the idea is to drastically reduce its use. That’s what happened to coal. In 1902, anthracite coal miners in Pennsylvania went on strike. Coal heated most homes, ran factories and fueled trains. Facing a national disaster, President Theodore Roosevelt had to intercede. These days, if Amish radicals took over Pennsylvania, we could afford to let them keep it.