On the 14th of August, large parts of the USA and Canada home to over 50 million people were plunged into darkness. Without electricity, modern life comes to a virtual halt. On page 13 of this issue, our regular columnist Bob Rapp explains how high temperature superconductors could be a solution to the problem of transmitting electricity.

But there exists a bigger problem that these power failures highlight. The world’s traditional energy resources, oil, coal, and gas, are neither sustainable nor environmentally friendly. As we have seen in recent times, finding an alternative to oil, in particular, has become a worldwide political issue. Add to this fact that as the population grows from the current six billion to perhaps as many as ten billion by 2050, our demand for energy will increase significantly.

We may not have to wait until 2050 for problems to arise. According to the Institution of Chemical Engineers (IChemE), the UK could experience similar power outages this winter. The UK’s national grid is running on reduced overcapacity, says energy affairs spokesman David White, and growing electricity demands could outstrip supply. Liberalized energy markets are particularly vulnerable and may be stifling investment in alternative means of power generation, adds IChemE’s Andrew Furlong.

As we saw in the last issue of Materials Today, the USA and other countries are investing heavily in research into hydrogen as an alternative energy source. But, it must be remembered, hydrogen is an energy carrier rather than a fuel. The generation of energy remains a significant question, whether a hydrogen economy is realizable or not. This question is one to which Nobel laureate Richard Smalley has turned his attention. Nanotechnology, he believes, could solve the energy problem. Encompassing high temperature superconductors and hydrogen-related technologies (from production to storage to fuel cells), nanotechnology could also enable a revolution in photovoltaics. Nanotechnology could provide means for reducing our power consumption — with the advent of nanoelectronics for computers and other electronic goods, advanced lightweight materials for vehicles and other transportation, and solid-state lighting to replace incandescent and fluorescent lamps. Nanomaterial coatings could make drilling easier and cheaper — paving the way for geothermal heat mining — an option that needs to be explored more fully, believes Smalley.

Smalley uses these examples to make the case for nanotechnology, but they would do equally well for materials science. A challenge such as this would focus research and, he hopes, draw a new, younger generation to the physical sciences. Recruitment is one of the biggest problems facing materials science, and perhaps Smalley’s claims for nanotechnology hold a solution. Become a materials scientist and save the world!


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DOI: 10.1016/S1369-7021(03)01001-0