Bet­ter bat­ter­ies to beat global warm­ing: A race against time

Kuwait Times - - TECHNOLOGY -

WASH­ING­TON: One of the key tech­nolo­gies that could help wean the globe off fos­sil fuel is prob­a­bly at your fin­ger­tips or in your pocket right now: the bat­tery. If bat­ter­ies can get bet­ter, cheaper and store more power safely, then elec­tric cars and so­lar- or wind- pow­ered homes be­come more vi­able - even on cloudy days or when the wind isn’t blow­ing. Th­ese types of tech­no­log­i­cal so­lu­tions will be one of the more hope­ful as­pects of United Na­tions cli­mate talks that be­gin next week in Paris.

“If you are se­ri­ous about elim­i­nat­ing com­bus­tion of fos­sil fu­els to power any­thing - a house, a city, a state - you can’t do it with­out (en­ergy) stor­age,” which usu­ally means bat­ter­ies, said Carnegie Mel­lon Univer­sity bat­tery ex­pert and in­ven­tor Jay Whi­tacre. For­mer Vice Pres­i­dent Al Gore, for­mer US Ge­o­log­i­cal Sur­vey chief (and cur­rent ed­i­tor-in-chief of the jour­nal Science) Marcia McNutt and oth­ers point to bet­ter bat­ter­ies as one of the bright spots in the fight against cli­mate change. While bat­ter­ies have been around for more than 200 years, this year the tech­nol­ogy has amped up.

In Oc­to­ber, an in­ter­na­tional team of sci­en­tists an­nounced a break­through in over­com­ing ma­jor ob­sta­cles in next gen­er­a­tion en­ergy stor­age and cre­at­ing a bat­tery that has five to 10 times the en­ergy den­sity of the best bat­ter­ies on the mar­ket now. In Septem­ber, Whi­tacre won a $500,000 in­ven­tion prize for his eco-friendly wa­ter-ori­ented bat­tery. And in April, Elon Musk an­nounced plans for his Tesla Mo­tors to sell high-tech bat­ter­ies for homes with so­lar pan­els to store elec­tric­ity for night time and cloudy day use, wean­ing the homes off dirt­ier power from the burn­ing of coal, oil and gas.

“The pace of in­no­va­tion does seem to be ac­cel­er­at­ing,” said JB Straubel, chief tech­ni­cal of­fi­cer and co-founder of Tesla with Musk. “We’re kind of right at the tip­ping point where the cur­rent per­for­mance and life­time of bat­ter­ies roughly equal that of fos­sil fu­els. If you are able to dou­ble that, the prospects are huge.” At its mas­sive Ne­vada Gi­gafac­tory, Tesla has started pro­duc­ing pow­er­walls to store en­ergy in homes. They can’t make them fast enough for cus­tomers world­wide.

In Novem­ber, a Texas util­ity an­nounced it was giv­ing wind-gen­er­ated elec­tric­ity free to cus­tomers at night be­cause it couldn’t be stored. That’s where Tesla hopes to come in - not just in cars, but in homes. Within 10 years, Straubel fig­ures it will be con­sid­er­ably cheaper (and cleaner) to get en­ergy through wind and so­lar power and store it with bat­ter­ies than to use coal, oil or gas.

“What has changed is the Gi­gafac­tory,” said Venkat Srini­vasan, deputy di­rec­tor of the Joint Cen­ter for En­ergy Stor­age Re­search at the Lawrence Berke­ley Na­tional Lab. “Two years ago I didn’t think any­one would have thought you’d in­vest $5 bil­lion in a big (bat­tery) fac­tory.’” Tesla is us­ing ex­ist­ing tech­nol­ogy, just mass pro­duc­ing and mar­ket­ing it. That’s one of two key changes in the field. The other is work to make the bat­tery it­self much more ef­fi­cient.

Start with that lithium ion bat­tery in your pocket. It was in­vented by John Good­e­nough, a pro­fes­sor at the Univer­sity of Texas. His next task is a safer bat­tery that uses sodium, a more plen­ti­ful el­e­ment that can pro­duce a faster charge. “Now I hope to help free your­self from your de­pen­dence on fos­sil fu­els,” he said on the same Oc­to­ber day he was awarded part of a $1 mil­lion in­no­va­tion-in-al­ter­na­tive-fu­els prize from Is­rael. “I be­lieve in the next year there will be a break­through,” he said. “I’m hope­ful, but we’re not there yet.” Glenn Amatucci, di­rec­tor of the en­ergy stor­age re­search group at Rut­gers Univer­sity, called it “a race against time. Ev­ery day and ev­ery hour is crit­i­cal in terms of get­ting an ad­vance.”

But Good­e­nough is in a spe­cial hurry, work­ing more than eight hours a day on his bat­tery: He’s 93. There are many teams around the world work­ing on break­through bat­ter­ies of dif­fer­ent types. One of the most promis­ing ma­te­ri­als is lithium oxy­gen, which the­o­ret­i­cally could store five to 10 times the en­ergy of a lithium ion bat­tery, but there have been all sorts of road­blocks that made it very in­ef­fi­cient. Then, last month a team led by Clare Grey at the Univer­sity of Cam­bridge an­nounced in the jour­nal Science that they had, on a small scale, over­come one ob­sta­cle so that its ef­fi­ciency could com­pete with lithium ion bat­ter­ies.

The po­ten­tial gains in this tech­nol­ogy are high, but it is still at least seven to 10 years from com­mer­cial avail­abil­ity, Grey said. At Carnegie Mel­lon and Aquion En­ergy, Whi­tacre is hon­ing a wa­ter-ori­ented bat­tery with sodium and car­bon. Oth­ers are look­ing at mag­ne­sium. Tesla’s Straubel sees all sorts of dif­fer­ent bat­tery pos­si­bil­i­ties. “It’s an on­go­ing revo­lu­tion,” Straubel said. “It’s a crit­i­cal piece in the whole puz­zle in how we stop burn­ing fos­sil fu­els com­pletely.” —AP

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