Sunday, January 8, 2012

Yet Another Battery Breakthrough

If you could wave your handy dandy magic wand and create a single technological breakthrough that would make a huge impact on our intertwined climate and energy challenges, you’d be hard pressed to come up with something better than a killer battery.

Find a way to make a battery pack that greatly exceeds the range of those in the Leaf, Mitsu i, Focus EV, etc., and at an acceptable price for mass production and market acceptance, and you would dramatically change our outlook. Using such a battery in motor vehicles and possibly in huge banks to make integration of wind and solar power easier, would have immense benefits. And it would ensure that the inventors would be wealthy beyond the dreams of avarice, famous, virtually guaranteed a Nobel, and, oh yeah, stinking wealthy.

None of this is news to anyone, of course, which is why there are so many companies and universities working feverishly to make The Big Battery Breakthrough. It’s also why we see so many early announcements of things that work wonderfully in the lab but have yet to make it to the showroom floor. As I’ve pointed out before, that’s a path fraught with obstacles, and many inventions and designs never complete the journey from lab bench to market, so batteries aren’t unique.

All of which is to say that I hope everyone reading this doesn’t go on a three-day bacchanal when they read every one of these possibly premature announcements, like this one:

Air battery to let electric cars outlast gas guzzlers:

Standard electric vehicles use lithium-ion (Li-ion) batteries, which are bulky and rarely provide 160 kilometres (100 miles) of driving before they run down.

A newer type, known as a lithium-air cell, is more attractive because it has theoretical energy densities more than 1000 times greater than the Li-ion type, putting it almost on a par with gasoline. Instead of using metal oxides in the positive electrode, lithium-air cells use carbon, which is lighter and reacts with oxygen from the air around it to produce an electrical current.

The article details how IBMers used a supercomputer to model chemical interactions down to the level of quantum mechanics to solve a problem with existing lithium-air batteries. The researchers have gone beyond mere modeling, as “several research prototypes have already been demonstrated”.

Is this The Big Battery Breakthrough we so desperately need? I don’t know, and I would wager that even the researchers involved don’t know. And at some level I don’t even care — we have so many people working on this problem that eventually one of them will find the magic combination of chemistry and/or nanotech. When that happens, we can start making some very serious inroads into oil use for transportation and all the environmental impacts associated with it. And it can’t happen too soon.

Let me add one more thought to this, in anticipation of some of the responses I’m likely to get. Can we achieve a sizable reduction in oil use merely by changing our consumption patterns? Absolutely. I’ve repeatedly pointed out that the average American driver can increase his/her fuel efficiency by at least 20% simply by employing a mild form of hypermiling — accelerating less aggressively, not speeding, etc. — which could have a huge and immediate effect with zero initial investment.

But that isn’t going to happen because we have far too many people who are determined to exercise their constitutional right to say, “Fu#@ you, I’ll drive however I want”, and not enough who are willing to say, “Sure, I’ll make this one tiny change, which reduces my gasoline bill, and do my part to improve things”.

In other words, we need to recognize that overall people are myopic and selfish enough that we have to reduce the environmental impact of what they want to do and will do, and forget about changing their behavior. (Note to my fellow enviros: Ever wonder why so many people hate us? It’s because so many of us are constantly telling everyone else where to live, how to drive, how many kids to have, how many sheets of toilet paper to use, how to wrap Christmas presents, etc.) The only thing that will change their actions permanently and on a broad basis is a brute force economic incentive, as in much higher gasoline prices.

Of course, those higher prices are coming, which means the people who turn to much more fuel efficient vehicles (or EVs) and smarter driving patterns now will be way ahead of the rush once Americans are paying $5 or $6/gallon for gasoline. And until then we’ll gladly pocket the savings and laugh at the SUV drivers dashing around at 15 MPG (or less).

View the original article here

No comments:

Post a Comment