Batteries not included

batteryWhat I’m about to tell you is probably not new, and may even be something you thought about yourself. I’m arguing that an efficient battery is the answer to our energy problems. Not ethanol. Not biofuels. Not even fusion- although that would be kinda neat. Batteries.

Now, I’ve been giving this a lot of thought. It’s one of the advantages of having a two hour commute, I guess: lots of free time in which you can do nothing but holding on to a wheel and thinking – sometimes out loud. So if you happened to find this page – accidentally or otherwise – please bear with me, ’cause this is important.

During the course of our history as a civilization there were a few important paradigm shifts pertaining to the way we use energy. There was the wheel – harnessing the energy of beasts. There was the sail – wind power. The steam – coal power. Oil. Uranium. And now we’re looking into ethanol, wind turbines, solar power, geothermal energy, heat exchangers and a host of other new technologies, all aiming at producing reliable and safe energy.

Just the other day on BBC World Service, there was a big row about the decommissioning of the ageing British nuclear power stations, and the controversy surrounding the government’s plans of building new ones. And then we have the even bigger rows about the crops that are now cultivated for ethanol, which cause mass deforestation and a diminishing of the food supply for poorer and less power-hungry nations. There are big talks about the unreliability and inefficiency of solar and wind power, and European Union’s plans of cutting greenhouse gas emissions by 20% by 2020 is met with skepticism and incredulity.

Which got me thinking: why don’t we pave Sahara then with photovoltaic cells and let them cook us electricity? Politics notwithstanding, there is actually one serious reason. Reliability. Or more exactly, the lack thereof.

You see, we want our energy to be reliable. That’s the first big requirement. When we push the button or the switch, power should be there, and at the expected voltage and amperage at that, because otherwise our light bulbs are going to blow up. Our engines expect a fuel of certain quality, otherwise they won’t start. The energy that we consume, in other words, has to be a linear function. Which is funny, because or consumption patterns are anything but linear. Of course, we could say that flicking on a light won’t affect the grid that much, but we’re talking factories, assembly lines and other such energy hogs. You can’t just turn off a nuclear power station over night, for instance, because people are not working, so you have to get that power off the grid.

A nice experiment done in the Netherlands used this energy surplus to drop the temperature in a few major deep freeze storage facilities by 4-5 degrees Celsius overnight (from -50C to -55C, for instance) – and letting them come back to the original temperature during the day. The freezers ended up using almost no power at all during the day, and the smart mind who thought this ended up saving his company a lot of money. What he created is essentially a large scale battery, storing power overnight and using it during the day.

The problem with this approach though is that our freezers cannot put power back on the grid during the day. But this is a great idea. What if you could do that in your home? Imagine just storing up the cheap night power and powering your home appliances during the day with it. An efficient energy storage would work wonders for the solar and wind power producers as well; they would just pack up the sunshine and store it for the rainy days. Literally.

The other half of the puzzle is the transportability of energy. You see, that’s what makes oil great. You can transport it relatively easy over large distances, and you can store it indeterminately, as long as you don’t light a fire too close to it. And best of all, you can use it to move vehicles around. The only necessary infrastructure is a well maintained road (or runway, or harbor). No strings attached.

Now imagine having a battery that can reliably power your car for 1000 km or more. And that can fully charge in 3 minutes. No hassle, no choices of leaded, unleaded and ultimate, no smelly fumes – just a big plug and a cup of coffee and it’s done. A pipe dream? This is the domain of the supercapacitor, a new research field which uses the advances in nanotechnology to try to attain these very desirable characteristics described above.

This is where we should be going. Reliable and transportable energy storage. If we achieve this, the energy sources won’t matter any more. We’ll just pave Sahara with photovoltaic cells, we’ll plug every geothermal source in Iceland and we’ll build huge supercapacitor silos to store that energy for future use. And for transportation we’ll just retrofit the supertankers of today with the same big capacitors – or maybe another, yet to be discovered energy storage device – and bring the energy to where is needed. No more energy hunger. No more oil wars. A brave new world.

EDIT: We’re almost there! Stanford researchers discovery may lead to a ten-fold increase in battery life. Well done, world.

EDIT2: Here’s another article about ultracapacitors.