Friday, November 20, 2009

Battery breakthroughs, grains of salt

Battery technologies are the great holy quest of the energy world, and there is, thankfully, movement in the field.

But most of the real advance is incremental, not breakthrough stuff.

(Image: Lithium Ion batteries are researched at the Argonne National Laboratory. Credit: U.S. Department of Energy.)

For batteries we want the impossible. We want them compact (big power, small package), high voltage, lightweight, non-toxic, fast-rechargeable and capable of being repeatedly discharged and recharged to near full power for the life of the equipment (car, solar cell, radio, computer, cell phone, etc.)

Over at Green Supply Line, Allan Yogasingam reports that “Recent spins on nickel- and lithium-based battery chemistries, such as nickel oxyhydroxide, olivine-type lithium iron phosphate and nanowires, are gunning to displace the venerable but problematic alkaline-manganese dioxide formulation in the AA sockets of tomorrow's gadgets.”

Researchers are not only looking at new chemical formulations, but new internal architecture. Nanowires are a promising field of research, tiny filaments providing tons of surface area on which chemical reactions can take place.

Some companies are moving forward with existing technology instead of waiting. Project Better Place, which proposes to establish electric car fleets in Hawai'i, Israel and Denmark, is talking conventional lithium ion batteries. One of the benefits of using off-the-shelf technology is that you don't make promises you can't keep

Unkept promises are a problem in the battery field. An example: Nearly three years ago the Texas firm EEStor announced a breakthrough battery technology based on ultracapacitors and a barium titanate compound.

The promised batteries hold a huge charge for their size, are inexpensive, charge quickly and use non toxic materials. How much power density? They said 280 watt hours per kilogram, more than twice lithium-iron and more than eight times lead-acid. And ithis battery charges so fast you could complete a full charge during a 10-minute coffee break.

Of course, three years ago, the company said it shipping the battery in as early as late 2007, or maybe 2008. And of course, now we're nearly through 2009 and EEStor is not quite there yet. But the firm keeps announcing progress.

Zenn, the Canadian electric car firm that invested in EEStor and is counting on it to power Zenn ecars, is anxiously waiting.

Elon Musk, the guy whose hot little Tesla ecars are zipping the roads right now, said he's watching carefully.

"I've heard people say it's just B.S., and others say it's a big breakthrough. Until you see something on the road, objectively it's hard to say what's true,” Musk was quoted as saying.

Musk went with existing technology, lithium-ion, and you can buy his hot little sportsters now, with more models on the way.

Lacking the big breakthrough technology, most battery companies are working on incremental improvements in current systems. And incremental improvements do seem to be coming along.

And occasionally, there's news of an immense breakthrough. Here's one. A portable nuclear reactor, just six feet across, the size of a hot tub, available inside two years. So simple to operate that some call it a nuclear battery. Plug it in and it powers 27,000 homes, essentially maintenance-free. (Note: Hawai'i's constitution includes these words: "No nuclear fission power plant shall be constructed or radioactive material disposed of in the State without the prior approval by a two-thirds vote in each house of the legislature.")

We'll see.

Remember when Coleman announced you'd be able to buy a home fuel cell off the shelf. That was seven years ago. Popular Science announced breathlessly: "Yes, you can buy this home fuel cell." Cute little white unit, would run your house in an emergency for 8 or 10 hours, like a big battery. Oh, and then you needed to find a source of hydrogen to recharge it. Hmm.

Haven't heard much about these units lately.

One of the key features of the battery world is that there are a lot more promises than there are deliveries.

© Jan TenBruggencate 2009

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