Battery Technology: Has Fluidic Energy Cracked a Critical Code?
The technology revolution is a multidisciplinary phenomenon cutting across all dimensions of human experience.
We’re talking about advances in biotechnology that will help us identify, understand, manipulate, improve, and control living organisms – including humans.
New, “smart” materials, agile manufacturing, and nanotechnology are already changing the way we make devices and expanding their capabilities.
Conversations like this will lead to cures for diseases like cancer, the eradication of malnutrition, elimination of pollution, extension of life expectancy, and improvement of quality of life.
The continuing proliferation and increasing utility of information is the thread tying this revolution together and driving it forward.
Since the first transistor was fabricated in 1947, we’ve witnessed a 1-million-time reduction in the size of what we now call computer chips. The state of the art is Intel Corp.’s (INTC) 22-nanometer, three-dimensional Tri-Gate transistor.
Processing speed — or “time integration” — has improved by one million times.
So today we’re going to talk about one discrete discipline that’s been left behind… but may soon start to catch up.
Compared with what’s happening with information storage, energy storage is basically stuck in the 19th century.
Since the lead-acid battery was invented in 1859 — in time to power Civil War telegraph communication between armies in the field and military and civilian leaders in Washington, D.C. — we’ve witnessed “energy integration” of about five times.
The first lead-acid batteries provided about 40 watt-hours per kilogram. The latest lithium-ion batteries have improved to about 200.
Due largely to its high power-to-weight ratio and its low cost, lead-acid remains the standard for powering things like car batteries, backup supplies in cellphone towers, generators for facilities such as hospitals, and stand-alone power systems.
People are starting to pay attention, though, and this quiet corner of the technology revolution is about to get a lot noisier. Or disrupted, if you will.
Battery buzz has been building because of portable power. Think of devices such as laptops, digital cameras, and smartphones.
Now we’re onto electrified transportation, driven by Elon Musk’s Tesla Motors Inc. (TSLA) and the proliferation of airborne drones, based on major advances in the amount of energy we can integrate within a given weight or volume.
The next frontier is the electric grid.
The electric grid takes power from where it’s generated to where it’s used. It integrates generating stations that produce electricity, high-voltage transmission lines that carry it to demand centers, and distribution lines that connect to homes and businesses.
It’s been called one of the greatest inventions in human history. And it’s also still rooted in 19th century technology.
Let’s set aside for the moment issues such as its vulnerability to terrorists and hackers and the mass chaos that can result from disruption and talk about the integration of new storage technology into the grid.
Storage will increase grid stability by reducing incidents such as brownouts and blackouts. And it will also solve the “intermittency” problem and enable the utility-scale use of solar and wind power.
We can be more efficient and cleaner.
Until very recently, options for the long-term storage of wind and solar power were thought to be limited.
Chemical energy storage — converting output to hydrogen via electrolysis for future use in vehicles or fuel cells or to methane for use in the gas grid or for direct heat and power generation — was one option.
Tesla’s Musk is a champion of compressed air energy storage (CAES).
According to the Energy Storage Association, “In a CAES plant, ambient air is compressed and stored under pressure in an underground cavern. When electricity is required, the pressurized air is heated and expanded in an expansion turbine, driving a generator for power production.”