Sunday, May 24, 2009

News on the Battery Front

A few months back, I was browsing through a book on solar energy and the first thing the authors started talking about were batteries. Makes sense. It's nice to have lights on at night.

Obviously, if we have electric cars, it would be good if the batteries in them are charged by such things as solar energy or wind energy or other alternative, non-CO2 energy sources. Otherwise it misses the whole point and we'll have oil depletion all the faster and the ocean lapping at our doors a little sooner. So I occasionally take a look around to see what's happening in technology. Having read such magazines as Popular Science since the 1960s and noticing over the years the stories that never seem to go anywhere, dreamosol not being an effective power source, I try to be skeptical. And yet, I notice the second battery in my iBook, the one I bought over three years ago, has lasted substantially longer than the original battery and still holds a longer charge. There is measurable progress (one wonders what that progress would have been since 1981 if Ronald Reagan had not pulled the plug on alternative energy research).

One problem with batteries, though, is the time it takes to charge them. Now I come across stories on batteries that can be charged rapidly but it may be a while before they get here. In the meantime, here's one development maybe worth considering: battery swap stations. Here's the story from Wired:
Better Place unveiled its battery swap system today and said the $500,000 gadget can replace a dead battery and get you back on the road in less time than it takes to fill your gas tank.

The prototype revealed in Japan is the first of what the Silicon Valley startup promises will be countless automated battery exchange stations that will one day dot our cities. The technology will make it possible to travel long distances in an EV without the hassle of stopping to recharge your battery, company founder and CEO Shai Agassi said.

I happen to like this idea—mainly because I thought of it ten years ago—but I wonder how necessary it is at this point in our technology? Electric vehicles seem perfect for city traffic and short trips. Isn't that something we learn from hybrids—that they're much more efficient in stop and go traffic than they are on the open highway? So if you happen to buy an electric car for local use and next summer you want to take a long trip, it probably makes more sense to rent a conventional vehicle that has good open road mileage. Maybe the key to moving forward is flexibility. It will help the spread of electric cars—and their range—if companies, for example, put in charging posts for their employees, either as a perk or for a fee. Maybe cities could install charging posts which would collect more money than parking meters (there are parking meters that now take ATM cards; they might be easy to convert).

One possible example of flexibility (maybe I need to think about this one a little more) is an energy solution that Fairbanks Alaska has come up with: the world's largest battery:
The world's biggest battery was plugged in yesterday to provide emergency power to one of the United States' most isolated cities.

The rechargable battery, which at 2,000 square metres is bigger than a football pitch and weighs 1,300 tonnes, was manufactured by power components specialist ABB to provide electricity to Fairbanks, Alaska's second-largest city, in the event of a blackout.

The battery is not exactly a breakthrough and is really a collection of batteries. It's only supposed to last seven minutes: just enough time to get generators going and hopefully keep pipes from freezing on winter nights. Actually, I think someone in Australia has invented and is manufacturing specialized rechargeable batteries of a large size, though not yet a battery big enough to power a city of 12,000. But I suspect for a number of applications in the future, particularly for problematic sources such as solar and wind, we're going to need large-scale batteries of some type (actually, if we change the framing, large water projects and reservoirs are already giant energy storage systems—even to the point of reclaiming water after peak hours so the water can once again go through the same turbines).

But efficient, long-lasting light-weight batteries are important too. In recent days, there have been several articles on lithium-sulfur batteries. In the past these batteries have been problematic but Technology Review reports that apparently there has been a breakthrough:
Lithium-sulfur batteries, which can potentially store several times more energy than lithium-ion batteries, have historically been too costly, unsafe, and unreliable to make commercially. But they're getting a fresh look now, due to some recent advances. Improvements to the design of these batteries have led the chemical giant BASF of Ludwigshafen, Germany, to team up with Sion Power, a company in Tucson, AZ, that has already developed prototype lithium-sulfur battery cells.

"Compared to existing technologies used in electric vehicles, the plan is to increase driving distance at least 5 to 10 times...

Five to ten times...! Okay, maybe that's not sulfur I'm smelling, maybe that's a potent dose of dreamosol. Still, it could be worth keeping an eye on. But I like better the other lithium battery that has popped up in the news—the lithium oxygen battery:
...researchers at the University of St Andrews, with associates at Strathclyde and Newcastle, have developed a new type of air-fueled battery that could provide up to 10 times the energy storage of existing designs, paving the way for a new generation of electric cars and portable devices.

Dubbed the STAIR (St Andrews Air), the new battery improves capacity by adding a carbon component. Oxygen drawn in through a surface of the battery exposed to air reacts within the pores of the carbon to discharge the battery. The discovery that the carbon component’s interaction with air can be repeated, creating a cycle of charge and discharge, led to the development of the new battery.

(There's a good illustration here.) One immediate advantage of this battery over the one above is that there's no need to dig up millions of tons of sulfur. I know, I know, every new technology seems to have downsides. But I can't help liking the idea of a lightweight battery where one of the key components is in the air, not burned, and is renewable. Hopefully. Forget the pie-in-the-sky 10-fold energy storage for the moment. A two or three-fold increase would be great. What I like is the elegance of the concept. Is it possible to have elegant solutions to our energy solutions? I don't know. But when I dig through a number of articles on new materials and inventions, I notice lately that surprising things are happening even if these surprising things are still at the experimental level. We're discovering that we don't have all the answers yet at the physical and chemical level. In that, more than anything, I find hope.

Now if we can just get more research dollars and more commitment from the American government and keep big biz from slowing things down. It's small research teams, and small to medium companies that have the creativity these days. Hey, it's also small to medium companies that are best at creating American jobs.

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Anonymous S.W. anderson said...

"Now if we can just get more research dollars and more commitment from the American government . . . "
If I could have my way, the government would pony up as much as $1 trillion to make hydrogen fuel technology commercially viable, widely available and affordable within a decade. The technology is developed and works. What's needed is a really big money boost to do all the things I mentioned above.

It would necessarily include helping people dispose of or convert their current vehicles without suffering a huge losses. Help would also be needed to make the new-type vehicles affordable for first-time buyers.

Part of the calculus is that the new powertrain should be capable of lasting many, many more years than existing ones. They might even last decades. So, a system of update/upgrade drop-on body and interior packages would probably replace "buying a new car" every few years for most consumers.

Hydrogen fuel technology could probably also power major home appliances economically.

Iceland is already hard at work adopting the technology and has many fueling stations in place.

If a remote land of 300,000 souls can do it, I'm sure the U.S. can do it.

10:34 PM  

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