New hope for renewables – at Leicester University

With Prof. Chis Binns of Leicester University in the nanoparticle laboratory

For some curious reason, one or two people have marked me down as “against renewable energy” – perhaps because I have campaigned vigorously for local protest groups against wind farms.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  I am just installing a 2.4 kw Photo-Voltaic (PV) system at home – although to be fair that’s to take advantage of the absurdly generous “Feed-In Tariffs”, not because I think existing PV makes economic sense.

I am against renewable energy systems that are unsustainable by reason of cost.  Wind farms, for example, produce an intermittent and unpredictable trickle of electricity costing two to three times the amount of conventional energy.  But I would be the first to admit that a renewable technology delivering electricity at a competitive price would be the answer to every maiden’s prayer.  And it’s just possible that such a technology is being developed, right here in the East Midlands at Leicester University.

Today I went to the Physics Building at the University to meet Professor Chris Binns, a physicist who specialises in nanoparticles and “Surface Resonance Effects”.  Apparently if you shine light onto a metallic nanoparticle, especially of copper or gold, you create an electrical resonance effect that starts a current and creates a voltage.  Embed your nanoparticles in a suitable non-conducting medium, in a (very) thin sheet, sandwiched between still thinner metal coatings as electrodes on either side, and you can generate power.

Gold sounds expensive, but the actual weight of gold per square metre of sheet is so small as to be almost trivial.

This process is so far at a very early stage, and only small laboratory samples have been made, in the kind of hi-tech, hi-vacuum kit you see in the photograph – where they’re creating and condensing real metallic gold into nanoparticles.  And in principle, extending the process to industrial-scale sheets should be doable.  Strangely, it’s comparable to the thin-film technology used to create crisp packets.

Once created, the PV film can be applied to windows.  It’s so thin that it hardly blocks the light.  Or it can go on roofs, or any large surface exposed to the sun.  There is no theoretical reason to expect the film to be less efficient that conventional PV panels – indeed it may even be more efficient.  And there is at least a good prospect that it will be a whole lot cheaper.  It is not inconceivable (a leap of faith coming here) that it may produce electricity at prices competitive with today’s conventional power plants.

Imagine the south-facing wall of a modern office block coated with this material.  It could power the whole office (at least through the day).  This has the chance – just the chance – to become a truly transformative technology.  It will take a while, but expect it to arrive long before nuclear fusion.  And it’s starting out right here in Leicester.

Prince Charles is scared to death of nanoparticles, fearing they will turn all matter on earth into “grey sludge”.  I prefer hope to fear, and I hope that nanoparticles may deliver huge supplies of reliable, affordable and renewable energy.  Surely even Prince Charles would applaud that.   Meantime, good luck to Professor Binns.

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