Tuesday, December 22, 2009

"Green" tech breakthrough?

There are two major problems with "Green" electric generation technologies. They are more expensive (sometimes much more expensive) than alternatives, and they often don't work all the time.

The second one is the true deal killer. While higher cost is an efficiency issue, there are some places where these technologies would be extremely useful - mobile applications, for example, or off-the-grid locations where the current (polluting) alternatives are simply not a solution.

But if your electricity comes from solar, you can only turn your light on when the sun shines. Today you have to basically sell your electricity back to the power company (feed the Grid) during the day, so you can draw power at night. The power company hates this because it's terribly inefficient - a Potemkin Environmental Village, as it were.

Some boffins at the University of Illinois have come up with something that - if it works - would be a true game changer: a solid-state battery with ten times the energy density of Lithium-ion.
That battery incorporates a vast number of microscopic capacitors build from electrodes 10nm apart, separated by an insulator. According to Hubler, quantum effects, present because of nanometre scale of the capacitor, prevent the charge on one electrode jumping to the other when the electric field between the electrodes reaches a critical point.
This is probably a tipping point, if it's true. It would allow things like laptop computers that would run for a week between charges, or cell phones that would run for a month, or solar powered houses that don't connect to the Grid. It attacks the core problem with Green power technologies, which has never been generation, but rather storage.

Also keep a healthy dose of skepticism here. I remember hearing about solid state batteries as an Electrical Engineering student, a couple centuries ago back at State U. However, we might know pretty soon:
If all this is beginning to sound like the proverbial free lunch, it gets better. Hubler believes the manufacturing techniques used by the likes of Intel and AMD to make chips could be used to build these nanocapacitor arrays. A prototype could be built in a year, apparently, provided someone coughs up some cash to fund the research.
It's the 21st Century, and I still want my flying car. However, a week-long battery for my netbook would be pretty cool, too.


Anonymous said...

Depending on how much it is going to weigh, it might be the enabling technology for actually practical electric cars, too.

The portable power tool market is another application: High density and charging in single minutes or less could really be the end of the extension cord for a lot of things.

It is bound to happen sooner or later, I'm happy with sooner.


Ian Argent said...

What's the max discharge rate? If you can discharge it rapidly enough into the appropriate materials, you can get some attention for the local bomb squad...

(IIRC energy density on laptop batteries is getting into the small explosives range)

Borepatch said...

Jim, there are a zillion uses, if this pans out.

Ian, it take a true security mind to energy density to Earth Shattering Kaboom! Heh. And you're absolutely right.