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hydrogen nanotechnology
A scientist working at a hydrogen facility. Photo: This is Engineering.

Green nanotechnology: can Latin American tech reduce climate change?

Venezuelan inventor and engineer Juan Carlos Becerra presented in 2020 a prototype that replicates artificial photosynthesis to capture emissions. The key factor of this device is quantum nanotechnology.

“The prototype captures the CO2 from the environment through a fan and separates the water, oxygen and carbon particles,” Becerra said in an interview with Climate Tracker.

Nanomaterials such as graphene are manipulated in nanometers, which is a very small scale. Their small size is an advantage for artificial photosynthesis. At the nanometric scale, graphene has the particularity of influencing to improve the functioning of nanoparticles that participate in chemical processes.

Nanotechnology —like in the case of Becerra’s device— can offer the possibility to capture CO2 emissions from the atmosphere, and help to reduce climate change. But it also has its limitations, especially coming from Latin America.

Some limitations to putting it into practice are in the absence of financing, the little development of basic research for its application, adequacy and sustainability, in addition to the prevalence of fossil fuel use in the region.

There are various challenges that limit the application of prototypes such as that of Becerra in Latin America. Mainly, the absence of investment in technology at the national level, the scarce financing available and the lack of links between the public and private sectors, said scientists consulted by Climate Tracker.

Technological solutions are starting to take a more important role in the fight against climate change. However, they have also been the target of critics, who argue they might delay the necessary emissions reductions.

“For forty years, climate action has been delayed by technological promises. Contemporary promises are equally dangerous,” wrote researchers Duncan McLaren and Nils Markusson from Lancaster Environment Centre in an opinion piece.

Whether it’s through technology or through other ways, global emissions need to reach net-zero by 2050 if we are to stay within 1,5°C of global warming, the “safe” limit where less massive changes would occur, the most recent UN climate science report says.

Solar Power Plant: Sol de Loa, located in Antofagasta, Chile
Source: Highly Innovative Fuels. Solar Power Plant: Sol de Loa, located in Antofagasta, Chile. Installation of 800 thousand photovoltaic modules, located in an area of 509 hectares and will have a capacity of 330 MW DC.

In search for efficiency

Nanotechnology has allowed specialists to work at the biological scale for the first time in history, says María Belén Camarada, a scientist at the Research Center for Nanotechnology and Advanced Materials of the Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile (CIEN-UC). 

Management at this scale allows applications to be found in different fields, from medicine to biology, “such as the encapsulation of drugs for the directed and controlled release of cancer treatment with copper nanoparticles”.

“The diagnosis has also seen a great advance thanks to the use of nanomaterials, which has allowed us to create conductors based on graphene, sensors to detect toxins and monitoring of gases with carbon nanotubes”, points out Camarada.

This means that processes that were too delicate to perform before, can now be done at a very small scale. This is useful to make clean sources more efficient and to develop carbon capture technologies.

With nanotechnology, for example, researchers in Chile are developing green hydrogen generation through renewable energy sources, with the aim of reducing the costs of production, Camarada said.

Hydrogen is difficult to find alone in nature. To get this element and use it as a source of fuel, scientists need to produce it by separating molecules of water (H20), through a process called electrolysis.

This process, however, is expensive and requires a lot of energy. Catalysts —which are the particles that separate water into hydrogen and oxygen— play a critical role in reducing these costs. In short, the more efficient the catalyst, the less energy they need.

Nanotechnology can help to reduce costs by creating more efficient catalysts. Its ability to increase the surface of the catalysts makes it possible to cover more space, improve their stability and action from copper nanoparticles or zeolite nanolamines.

Despite this, only 0.36% of Chile’s GDP goes to science and technology. With this, the budget for investment in science is still low, there is a lack of funds allocated to research and there is a gap between academia and industry, commented the scientist for Climate Tracker.

A clear example of how nanotechnology can help to clean cities is Photio, a Chilean product that can be added to paint, asphalt or concrete. 

In contact with sunlight, Photio helps the degradation of pollutants such as carbon dioxide, through the use of nanoparticles.

The fundamental process in the additive is photocatalysis, a chemical reaction that occurs through the use of catalysts and that also works as a thermal purifier.

Gramofon Graphic
Source: Gramofon project. Descriptive image of the Gramofon project, the capture and selective storage of CO2 at low cost that could reduce CO2 emissions in energy generation by 90-95%, as well as in the transformation of fossil fuels and in intensive industrial processes through nanotechnology.

Initiatives to eliminate CO2

Eliminating CO2 from the atmosphere is important to reach net-zero emissions. Some advances in nanotechnology could help to make this a more efficient process.

Trees do this when they do photosynthesis: they capture CO2 from the air and use it as energy. However, this can also be done with certain machines, called “Carbon capture, utilisation and storage” (CCUS) technologies. 

These technologies will especially be needed to reduce global warming if we miss our climate targets, says the latest UN’s climate science report.

Right now, the problem is that carbon removal technologies currently require a lot of energy, which implies a lot of money.  Currently, removing 1 metric ton of CO2 costs around US $100 and $300, which means that removing the amount of CO2 recommended by the UN would cost around US $100 trillion.

Nanotechnology, now, aims to lower the costs of this process by creating more efficient nanomaterials. More specialized carbon absorbers and further development of their catalytic capacity will improve the results of CO2 capture processes.

For example, the nanofluid system allows greater concentration in the capture of carbon dioxide. Thermal stability is improved thanks to the application of nanoparticles in the process. 

But proposals such as Becerra’s artificial photosynthesis transform CO2, with the capacity to produce 5,000 kVA of energy. With this, it is possible to meet the demand of a town with more than 6,000 inhabitants and collect environmental pollution.

Galo Soler Illia is Dean of the Institute of Nanosystems (INS-UNSAM) in Argentina. Soler Illia highlights that Brazil, Mexico, Chile and Argentina are advancing in nanotechnology research and development of solutions to current climate challenges.

Source: Archives of the Ministry of Energy of Argentina. Diadema I wind farm, located in the province of Chubut, Argentina. It is the first wind farm in the country, it is made up of seven wind turbines that add an installed power of 6.3 MW and provide 37.7% of the generation in renewable energies.

Soler Illia points out that the current trend in Argentina, Chile, Australia, and China is to create green hydrogen (H2V) from sustainable sources. H2V stands out for being carbon neutral, as it is obtained from renewable sources such as wind and solar.

Costa Rica, Argentina, Brasil, Uruguay and Chile are the main promoters of green hydrogen projects and have ongoing plans in that industry. 

Likewise, Chile has a National Green Hydrogen Strategy aimed at producing 5 Gigawatts (GW) of electrolysis by 2025. Currently the country produces 25% of its energy from wind and solar sources.

Another prominent initiative is Base One, an alliance between the Enegix company and the state of Ceará in Brazil to build a plant that will produce 600 million kilograms of green hydrogen per year.

Climate action

In the last 20 years, nanotechnology has undergone an unprecedented revolution. Not only have we seen the creation of new compounds, but also the design of molecules that reduce the polluting effects of fossil fuels.

The Latin American Energy Week in June 2021 reaffirmed that the region has  great potential for renewable energies, especially with  the use of nanotechnology.

Brazilian scientist and researcher Erick Leonardo Ribeiro, said “the development of credible nano-research with a national science development is essential to move towards an energy transition and build green cities.”

Ribeiro highlights that “the role of technology should focus on the democratisation of access to electricity and the implementation of nanotechnology for this purpose.” Ribeiro also considers nanotechnology one of the many strategic solutions to the climate crisis.

However, some scientists —such as McLaren and Markusson from the University of Lancaster— have been critical of technological solutions such as these. “Putting our hopes in yet more new technologies is unwise”, they said. Instead, they argue for aggressive emissions reductions right now.

Vanessa Pérez-Cirera, a Global Deputy of Climate and Energy for WWF, argued that “nature based solutions” must have a more important role in addressing the climate crisis.

Nature-based solutions, in this case, relate to the capacity of ecosystems to capture carbon from the atmosphere. Mangrove forests, for example, have the capacity to store 10 times more CO2 than tropical forests per hectare.

“The loss of biodiversity, the climate crisis and equitable development are three powerful reasons to consider them and see them as a complement to advance climate goals,” Pérez-Cirera added.

The development and application of nanotechnology in Latin America promises to be an important component in the region’s climate plans.