Battery technology and the future of energy

The future of energy: Batteries included? | The Economist.

Interesting for three things:

Batteries are a hugely important technology. Modern life would be impossible without them. But many engineers find them disappointing and feel that they could be better still. Produce the right battery at the right price, these engineers think, and you could make the internal-combustion engine redundant and usher in a world in which free fuel, in the form of wind and solar energy, was the norm. That really would be a revolution.

In more than a few places batteries seem the enabler or bottleneck on what is possible. Have thought since the beginning of the electric car and upward rise in oil prices that whoever can figure this one out will have created a keystone for the next century.

To discover more of them, Argonne will make use of a rapidly growing encyclopedia of substances created by Gerbrand Ceder of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Dr Ceder runs the Materials Project, which aims to be the “Google of material properties”. It allows researchers to speed up the way they search for things with specific properties. Argonne will use the Materials Project as a reference library in its search for better electrodes, and also hopes to add to it.

I like this for enabling innovation through access to information and letting it remix freely. The likelihood of any one organization to capitalize on such a database and create a power source beyond all others is far less than the entire world getting a crack at that same information / problem. Am reminded again of Steven Johnson’s analysis that public sector research is what enables private sector innovation.

The leader is probably the lithium-air battery, in which metallic lithium is oxidised at the anode and reduced at the cathode. In essence, it uses atmospheric oxygen as the electrolyte. This reduces its weight and means its energy density is theoretically enormous. That is important. One objection to electric cars is that petrol packs six times more joules of energy into a kilogram than a battery can manage. Bringing that ratio down would make electric vehicles more attractive.

Very cool if still distant at this point. Somewhere I hope someone has both the engineering expertise and interest in creating a power source that can sustainably draw from the world yet produce more than current means.

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