Technically, they already have. Nanoparticles are ultrafine units of matter that measure no more than 100 nanometers in length, width, or height. They have a part to play in fuel cells — and their potential replacement of combustion engines. Fuel cells produce electricity through a chemical reaction, and nanoparticles can serve as the catalysts that facilitate those reactions.
So we can all go home now, as that all makes perfect sense, right? Not quite.
These minuscule bits are particularly useful in industrial applications like fuel production, which require durable catalysts. Nanoparticles fit the bill because they have a relatively large surface-area-to-volume ratio, which means the reactions can happen faster (more surface to react) [source: Birch]. And because they’re so teeny tiny, you don’t have to use much.
But the nanoparticles currently in use aren’t the cheapest or the most durable. How is research changing that?
There’s a new light bulb on the horizon, one that lasts longer than a fluorescent light and is quiet; uses less energy than an incandescent bulb and or even a compact fluorescent light (CFL); and doesn’t emit the bluish light of the CFL or the light emitting diode (LED) bulb. Researchers at Wake Forest University in North Carolina and Trinity College in Ireland have developed a new sort of light fixture based on field-induced polymer electroluminescent technology, also known as FIPEL. They’re already working with a company called CeeLite to manufacture FIPEL lights and hope to have them on the consumer market by the end of 2013 [source: Neal, Spector]
Instead of mercury or the filaments in old-fashioned incandescent bulbs, FIPEL lights contain multiple layers of polymers — good ol’ plastic — imbued with an iridium compound and a small number of carbon nanotubes. The latter are cylindrical structures, built in laboratories that are as minuscule as 1/10,000th the diameter of a human hair! Compared to conventional materials, these nanomaterials have a lot of novel characteristics, such as increased strength, chemical reactivity and/or conductivity [source: European Commission]. When electrical current flows into the FIPEL tube, it stimulates it to produce light just as electrical current passing through mercury in a fluorescent tube does. That energy is filtered through the polymers to create light [sources: Dillow, Electronics Weekly].
Energywise, the FIPEL light is twice as energy-efficient as a CFL, about the same as a LED. But it doesn’t have any caustic chemicals like the CFL which contains a small amount of mercury. And because it is plastic, the FIPEL is easy to recycle. The bulb has a lifetime of 25,000 to 50,000 hours, about the same as LED. Wake Forest physics professor David Carroll, who’s the inventor, said he’s had a bulb burning in his lab for a decade [source: Neal, Spector].