Thinking Tech

Battery evolution overwhelms mass production

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.

In computing we are used to rapid change.

(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.)

Revolutionary claims. Lots of patents, but where is the proof? The only way to learn what's really going on there is a critic's blog -- the company doesn't have a Web site.

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.

Share this

Dana Blankenhorn

Contributing Editor

Contributing Editor Dana Blankenhorn has written for the Chicago Tribune, Advertising Age's "NetMarketing" supplement and founded the Interactive Age Daily for CMP Media. He holds degrees from Rice and Northwestern universities. He is based in Atlanta. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure