Posting in Energy
Battery technology is undergoing unprecedented change. The change is so rapid that innovations can't get into mass production before another innovation promising even more takes its place in the imagination.
(Picture from EEStor via Peswiki.)
New chips come out every year, always faster and more cost-effective. So do new devices using those chips, and new servers, and new technologies combining servers in new configurations. Not to mention new software at every level.
But all these changes at least have a common vocabulary. It's called Moore's Law. Better and better gets faster and faster, even while it grows increasingly expensive to build in a factory.
The industry has adapted to Moore's Law by treating gear the way California farmers treat fresh fruit. A chip or computer loses value as soon as it leaves the manufacturing line. Speeding it through the channel to a buyer is the key to profit.
Batteries should be like that. But they are not.
Batteries are the big bottleneck between our world and a green future. Many are made with hazardous substances. They are difficult to dispose or and difficult to recycle. They take too long to recharge, they're too heavy, they don't hold enough charge.
Lots of big customers would love better batteries. Electrical utilities need them for smart grids. They're trying to work with what they have, but they know what they have isn't what they are going to have.
What they are going to have is going to be completely different.
Today, battery technology is undergoing unprecedented change. The change is so rapid that innovations can't get into mass production before another innovation promising even more takes its place in the imagination.
Take EEStor for instance. Please. (Rimshot.)
Maybe their ceramic battery works. Many cool technologies go through this kind of process, fits and starts, financial dances, big promises and delayed deliveries.
Many scams work that way, too.
I don't want to pick on EEStor here. Extraordinary claims abound in this area:
- Stanford scientists say they have perfected bendable batteries, as thin as paper, using nanotechnology. An ink of carbon nanotubes and silver nanowires can both store energy, as a battery does, and release it at a signal, like a capacitor.
- Harvard scientists have created a good battery from bacteria found in African soil.
- MIT scientists say they have a way of recharging lithium-ion batteries in seconds rather than overnight.
A company called Altair Nanotechnologies of Reno, Nevada says it can replace the graphite found in current lithium-ion batteries with a much safer material it calls Lithium Titanium Oxide.
There's an important point in that name. The first microcomputer released in 1975 was called the Altair. That's where we are with batteries. We're at the Altair stage.
The Altair used switches to program a chip in binary. It was a wild success, but it lacked the basic elements we recognize today as a computer -- a screen for output, mass storage, even a keyboard for input.
That's where we are with batteries. We don't know what they will really be. We don't have a working vocabulary for how to make them, or an upgrade path. We don't have the equivalent of Moore's Law -- just a lot of claims from entrepreneurs and scientists that the "next big thing" is just around the corner.
And it is. It's exciting. I can't wait for the battery equivalent of the Apple II.
But the power industry's version of Steve Jobs hasn't shown up yet, either.
Feb 2, 2010
It's odd that so much commentary on EEStor dismisses it as a high tech con, putting it down with snarky remarks poking fun at their efforts, as does this blog. Maybe the real story is simply that a few very smart and experienced people have staked their reputations and livelihoods on making some promising but questionable technology work in the real world, have attracted start up capital from investors up for the risk because the rewards of success would be enormous, and are working their butts off to make it happen, despite inevitable delays and disappointments along the way. They may well fail of course, which will let you keep laughing into your beer, smirking that you knew all along they would. If they succeed, on the other hand, you will lose (only) the opportunity to make fun of them. But you would owe them a profound apology. Will you give it?
Thanks for the info. One red-flag that comes to mind is the raw materials. Where are they sourced from? If they rely on rare earth type elements then the Chinese are lucky enough to to be sitting on a large percentage of the worlds supply. They are also farsighted enough to have been investing in other sorces wolrd-wide. This is important as regards many other technologies as well, think hybrids, rare-earth magnets, and electronics. Maybe the carbon nanotubes are important (even if not as powerful,maybe) just as a head against embargos. It might not happen, but all the eggs wouldn't be in one basket.
According to some scientists (don't remember their names) it would be difficult to make a wormhole big enough for humans to travel through, but very small ones would be ideal to use for delivering electricity to a laptop or similar. One end of the wormhole would be at a powerplant and the other inside laptops or cars. Too bad we don't have any idea how to make wormholes yet, but scientists seem to think it is feasible. Until then we have to stick with traditional batteries, since my laptop at least doesn't run on fantasy yet. ;-)
Energy has had its Steve Jobs phase. They were named Edison, Westinghouse, Siemans, and others of the same generation. What you want is the next Stve Jobs for energy.
...wouldn't really help much. The energy density and recharge time of batteries wouldn't be furthered by Apple's genius in sleek design, user-friendly operation and marketing. You need the battery Alan Turing. But just maybe information lends itself to exponential (Moore's law) increases in density where energy doesn't.
We are certainly in the first inning of the next generation battery technology. We've read a continuous stream of new discoveries that are supposed to be big breakthroughs, but nothing ready for production. Most of these discoveries will turn out to be a bust. That's reality. A safe, relatively inexpensive, capable of 10 years of recharging and rechargeable in minutes----- battery that stores exponentially more energy than current production technologies is still a myth. Most of the discoveries are hyped in order to retain government or investor funding.
Speaking of Altairnano and A123, from all the tests I have seen, Altairnano batteries are superior to A123. Altairnano's problem is that they do not want to raise the capital to manufacture the batteries, they want to license the tech to others to make them for them. Because of this they are focusing on large scale batteries for small scale projects, prototype units for AES and the Navy, etc, instead of making small scale batteries for use by DIYers and others. Want proof that their chemistry is better than A123. Just look at another company that picked the same chemistry and is going ahead with two factories to produce them, one purely for EV applications. That company....TOSHIBA and their SCiB or Super Charge ion Battery. It is the battery people have been waiting for not with EXTRAORDINARY claims, but with real performance that can do the job today. They already have agreements with a few automobile manufacturers to boot. I just hope they offer them to DIYers too.
"A company called Altair Nanotechnologies of Reno, Nevada says it can replace the graphite found in current lithium-ion batteries with a much safer material it calls Lithium Titanium Oxide." You've got to be kidding. By the way, the substance they call "Lithium Titanium Oxide" is most likely lithium titanium oxide. You can't the wool over my eyes. Do you people know anything about chemistry, physics, ecology, etc?
Recharging will one day be history. Do we really have to go through all the little modifications? Can't we skip that part where we get an hour of more energy, or an hour less recharging time? Forget recharging, its too expensive and way too slow. Can't we connect to the sun? We connect to everything else, we build a few amplifiers in between the sun and earth, package units that are send through to, well you get the point. I am not a scientist but I am just as screwed :)...what a wonderful world
I'm waiting for a battery that cost two cents, never needs more than two minutes to charge and swallows itself and disappears when it finally dies. Oh and of course it needs to be very small and make pancakes!
There are a lot of companies like the one you describe. Promising technologies that are hampered by one little hurdle they are having difficulty getting over.
Have you read about A123 Systems? Their tech has 10x the energy density, 1/10th the charge time per volume. They're here now, sitting, waiting. Some are in use but, otherwise, they're paid to sit because if they hit market now, they'd kill the inevitable product cycle we're forced to endure. They also adhere to Moore's Law, doubling in density every ~18months. Invest enough, maybe they'll realize theres more in demand for their product than there is in the cronies who pay them off.