Skip to main content

Energy Storage Innovation

Matt Yglesias bemoans the lack of battery innovation:
This is bad news for the world. If you look at the mobile computing space, precisely the area in which you don't see breathtaking innovation is this battery stuff. We're just not getting better at the basic physics of storing electricity in a reasonably compact way. Battery life for things like smartphones and laptops has improved, but that's all coming as improved efficiency of the chipsets. But here, too, the basic physics of translating engine power into forward automobile motion are not amenable to enormous improvements.
It's true that batteries have not kept anything like close pace with the rate of innovation in the rest of the tech world. In fact, when you take recycling into account, it's still hard to beat the old lead-acid batteries from the days of yore.

Capacitors, via Wikimedia
However there has been stupendous innovation in a different area of charge storage: capacitors. I remember my intro physics class with the legendary David Griffiths at Reed, and during one lecture he talked about how his original electrodynamics textbook written back in the 80s made the point that the standard unit of capacitance, the Farad, is quite large, such that when he was writing you would have needed a forklift to carry a one-Farad capacitor. Well lo and behold some joker of a materials chemist sent him a one-Farad capacitor (this was in 2005, mind you) taped to a plastic fork. It was about the size of a silver dollar and weighed maybe a couple grams.

Capacitors are sort of a strange thing to use for long-term storage--normally they're for short burst power, which is where you find them on circuit boards and in custom high-powered stereos. But if you can get the capacitance high enough (into the tens of thousands of Farads), the physics works out. Just last year there was a new method developed:
A new carbon based material for supercapacitor electrodes could allow them to store the same amount of energy as a lead-acid battery but with much faster charge times. The porous material shows power densities an order of magnitude better than current carbon supercapacitors and can be made in a simple method that could be easily scaled to industrial quantities.
There are some additional advantages to capacitors as well. Batteries depend on an actual chemical reaction going back and forth, which is what limits their recharge lifespan. Capacitors are much closer to classic physics (though the boundary is increasingly blurred with super-capacitors), which gives them greater durability. Plus they can be charged and discharged at 10-100 times the speed of conventional batteries.

Their energy density still doesn't quite match up to the best batteries, but given the history of breakthroughs in the field, if I were going to bet on innovation in energy storage, this would be the place.


Popular posts from this blog

Why Did Reality Winner Leak to the Intercept?

So Reality Winner, former NSA contractor, is in federal prison for leaking classified information — for five years and three months, the longest sentence of any whistleblower in history. She gave documents on how Russia had attempted to hack vendors of election machinery and software to The Intercept , which completely bungled basic security procedures (according to a recent New York Times piece from Ben Smith, the main fault lay with Matthew Cole and Richard Esposito ), leading to her capture within hours. Winner recently contracted COVID-19 in prison, and is reportedly suffering some lingering aftereffects. Glenn Greenwald has been furiously denying that he had anything at all to do with the Winner clusterfuck, and I recently got in an argument with him about it on Twitter. I read a New York story about Winner, which clearly implies that she was listening to the Intercepted podcast of March 22, 2017 , where Greenwald and Jeremy Scahill expressed skepticism about Russia actually b

The Basic Instinct of Socialism

This year I finally decided to stop beating around the bush and start calling myself a democratic socialist. I think the reason for the long hesitation is the very long record of horrifying atrocities carried out by self-described socialist countries. Of course, there is no social system that doesn't have a long, bloody rap sheet, capitalism very much included . But I've never described myself as a capitalist either, and the whole point of socialism is that it's supposed to be better than that. So of course I cannot be a tankie — Stalin and Mao were evil, terrible butchers, some of the worst people who ever lived. There are two basic lessons to be learned from the failures of Soviet and Chinese Communism, I think. One is that Marxism-Leninism is not a just or workable system. One cannot simply skip over capitalist development, and any socialist project must be democratic and preserve basic liberal freedoms. The second, perhaps more profound lesson, is that there is no s

Varanus albigularis albigularis

That is the Latin name for the white-throated monitor lizard , a large reptile native to southern Africa that can grow up to two meters long (see pictures of one at the Oakland Zoo here ). In Setswana, it's called a "gopane." I saw one of these in my village yesterday on the way back from my run. Some kids from school found it in the riverbed and tortured it to death, stabbing out its eyes, cutting off its tail, and gutting it which finally killed it. It seemed to be a female as there were a bunch of round white things I can only imagine were eggs amongst the guts. I only arrived after it was already dead, but they described what had happened with much hilarity and re-enactment. When I asked why they killed it, they said it was because it would eat their chickens and eggs, which is probably true, and because it sucks blood from people, which is completely ridiculous. It might bite a person, but not unless threatened. It seems roughly the same as killing wolves that