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Sustainable Energy Sources and Nanomaterials

(+$5 million for Advanced Solar Technologies; +$4 million for Nanomaterial Environmental Health and Safety)


photo of solar field
Credit: ©inacio_pires/Shutterstock
Sustainability—meeting today's needs without sacrificing tomorrow's—is the watchword of the 21st century. NIST's 2011 budget request promotes a sustainable U.S. economy through initiatives for research on green manufacturing and construction, advanced solar technologies, and factors determining the environmental, health, and safety (EHS) risks of nanomaterials.

Sunlight offers an inexhaustible energy source; however, its widespread adoption is limited by the relatively high cost and low efficiency of conventional photovoltaic cells that convert solar energy into electricity. A mismatch exists between the full range of "colors" or wavelengths of light energy emitted by the sun, and those that can be efficiently absorbed by current photovoltaic technologies. New nanotechnology-based photovoltaic materials—so called third-generation solar technologies—may greatly enhance the absorption properties of photocells through multi-layer structures optimized to absorb light at specific wavelengths spanning the full spectrum of the sun's output. However, the new materials lack the durability needed for commercial applications and developers need measurement tools to systematically optimize the electricity-generating properties of the devices.

Beyond solar cells, nanomaterials promise to solve a whole host of technology problems from better medications to less flammable plastics, and the value of nano-enabled products is expected to hit $2.6 trillion by 2014. However, nanomaterials and products that contain them pose unknown risks throughout all stages of their lifecycles to people and the environment. This uncertainty threatens to erode public trust in the safety of nanotechnology products broadly and to stifle innovation and commercialization of nanotechnology products. U.S. regulatory agencies and industry need measurement tools—standards, protocols, and models—to link measured properties of nanomaterials such as size and shape with hazardous effects such as toxicity, and properly assess and manage EHS risks.

The National Nanotechnology Initiative identifies NIST as the lead agency for developing instrumentation, metrology, and analytical methods for advancing nano-EHS knowledge, and other major stakeholders recognize NIST as the lead organization for providing nano-EHS measurement methods and standards.

Proposed NIST Program

Funding provided through these initiatives will allow NIST to partner with industry and other government agencies to:

  • design measurement platforms and methods that rapidly find defects or quantify other properties important to the reliability, lifetime, and failure modes of nanomaterial-based photovoltaic cells;
  • develop and disseminate measurement techniques that link the efficiency of third-generation photovoltaic materials with specific nanoscale properties;
  • develop and release standards and methods to accurately measure and models to predict transformations—changes in properties—of common nanomaterial-containing products in relevant environments such as water, soil, sediments, and biological materials;
  • produce quantitative data and standards to assess the transport and movement of nanomaterials within and between various environments through both laboratory investigations and computer modeling; and
  • design standard assays to identify the critical properties of nanomaterials that produce toxicological responses in ecosystems and humans.

Expected Impacts

Technical results produced through this funding are expected to:

  • help manufacturers improve efficiency, quality, and durability, while lowering the cost, of third-generation photovoltaics;
  • allow industry and U.S. regulatory agencies to accurately assess and manage the risks posed by key nanomaterials and products containing them throughout a full product lifecycle, thus enabling appropriate regulation of their use to minimize harm to people and the environment; and
  • provide consumers with accurate information on EHS risks associated with specific products containing nanomaterials.

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Created February 2, 2010, Updated December 29, 2016