From cheap solar panels you can roll out like beach towels to clean water for millions, Prof. Dr. Markus Antonietti of the Max Planck Institute talks to us about the dizzying potential of nanotech. This is part of an interview series for the Summit on the Global Agenda in Abu Dhabi.

Nanotechnology – the manipulation of materials on a tiny scale –  is almost a ‘mature’ area of science these days. In what areas of life do you see it having the most influence?

You’re going to see giant leaps in efficiencies in places like energy and water technologies. Because of nanotechnologies, new batteries will have a ten times higher density. That means your laptop battery will go from 2 to 20 hours. A small electric car would go from 60 km per charge to 600 km.

Nano also allows for the simple disinfection and purification of water. It is already possible to put dirty water in a plastic bottle, leave it in the sun, and UV light will activate nano-particles that will kill all the bacteria. It’s just like the disinfectant in your pool except it’s done with light not chemicals.markus-antonietti-max-planck-institute (1)Is enough consideration being given to the risks of nanotech?

Yes, if not too much. Everything which is powerful has the risk to be dangerous. Nature uses nano all the time. Enzymes, for example, are nano structures. There must be rules for good practices, of course: nano technologies should be confined to liquids and the inside of batteries, for example. If this is done properly, there is no risk beyond the usual (batteries can always explode, as they are stored energy).

Looking forward, where do you think nanotechnology has the greatest prospect for improving the state of the world?

The most urgent and most readily available is in the purification of air and water. I’ve already explained how we can purify water with nanotechnology, and the implications for the millions of people without access to clean water would be enormous.

Globally, nanotechnologies also provide an answer to our CO2 problem. The technology already exists to fix the atmosphere. On a global scale, we are able to turn CO2 in the atmosphere into soil. Soil is a nano-structure and the “humus” – or carbon content – in it can be created artificially. Plants breathe in CO2 and through their own growth process convert that into biomass. From there, through nano chemical conversion, we get fresh soil, with the CO2 trapped inside.

This happens all the time in nature, just look at the compost in your garden. Nanotech would simply allow the acceleration and intensification of what happens in nature.

This has advantages beyond saving our atmosphere. Over-use of soil is a major problem around the world. The kind of soil we are talking about producing from CO2 is very fertile. It could be used to solve this problem as well.

The best part is that all of this could happen immediately, if we simply spread the information in an understandable way. People don’t read science journals, so they don’t even know that all of this is possible.

What single breakthrough in your field in the past year has excited you the most?

There are so many! If I must chose only one, it would be the 25% light-to-electricity conversion of cheap Perovskite cells, which are the fastest-advancing solar technology. We are talking about nothing less than the democratization of decentralised energy.

Solar has the potential to cure the entire energy problems of the world. So far, there have been investment problems that come with this. Cells are still too expensive. Making solar more simple in technology and in application has thus become a priority.

What if we could just roll out our solar panels like a giant beach blanket in the morning and roll them in at night or when it’s going to rain? Nanotechnology will allow such solar structures to be printed like a newspaper and this would bring down expenses. Imagine a solar panel like that for 30 euros or even three euros. Nano is taking us there.

If you could help your council achieve one thing in the course of its two-year term, what would it be?

The key to success is to find the balance between what I call software and hardware. The hardware, the actual technology, needs to be advanced and we need to have conversations about how to do that. But there also needs to be focus on education and getting information to the public at large. This is the software component. As I mentioned earlier, most people still don’t know about these technologies. Of course, without the content there is nothing to talk about! So both are important.

The main problems are no longer science problems, they are social problems.

The Summit on the Global Agenda 2015 takes place in Abu Dhabi from 25-27 October

Author: Markus Antonietti is Director of Max Planck Institute of Colloids and Interfaces, Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Biology. Member of the World Economic Forum Global Agenda Council on Nanotechnology

Image: A Cima NanoTech employee shows a piece of SANTE Film in their lab in Singapore in this April 12, 2013 picture. REUTERS/Edgar Su