Superbattery: The Next Great Triumph of Engineering

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TJ McDermott
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Re: Redistribution of Energy Production
TJ McDermott   1/15/2012 12:35:39 AM
The article is discussing a means of energy storage.  A more efficient means is absolutely necessary, one with higher energy density, but paired with that problem is that of the energy SOURCE.  Fossil fuels burn once, non-renewable (well, not renewable in this epoch).

I'd like to see more nuclear plants, but I find myself in the minority, I think.  What other energy sources are there?

Direct solar?  Why are there not huge solar farms in the areas of this country that receive the most sunlight?  The southwestern states SHOULD be exporting what falls for free on lots and lots of empty land.  It makes no sense to put solar in the northern states, they don't get enough sun to matter in the winter.

Wind power?  It's already been stated in this discussion that the turbine farms are not welcome (not in my back yard).  Higher charges for fossil fuels in those areas might convince the landowners that wind turbines are not such an eyesore.

Tidal?  The coastal areas that can benefit should, and agressively.  But even in Seattle, it's taking too bloody long.

There is not going to be a single solution that ends our need for fossil fuels; it will take all of them, applied appropriately regionally.

Oh, there's one other reason why we should consider AVOIDING wind turbine farms:


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Re: Redistribution of Energy Production
williamlweaver   1/15/2012 11:34:44 AM
TJ, I completely agree with your summary - energy storage vs. energy source. Please consider the following Energy Density information:  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Energy_density

Listing selected values of Energy Storage per kilogram for this discussion:

Uranium: 20,000,000 MJ/kg
Hydrogen: 142 MJ/kg
Methane: 56 MJ/kg
Propane: 50 MJ/kg
Butane: 49 MJ/kg
Gasoline: 46 MJ/kg
Diesel: 46 MJ/kg
Lithium: 43 MJ/kg
JetA/Kerosene: 43 MJ/kg
Coal: 33 MJ/kg
Hydrazine: 19.5 MJ/kg
Li/Air Battery: 9.0 MJ/kg
Zinc/Air Battery: 1.59 MJ/kg
Water at 100m dam height: 0.001 MJ/kg

From an Energy Storage argument, it appears we should be shoveling funds into a "hydrogen economy", if we wish to maximize energy storage efficiency. However, we need to consider systematic values of abundance, cost, safety, regulations, health, pollution, geo-political availability, etc. for all of these materials.

From a purely scientific argument, our Fossil-Fuel economy did pretty well when it comes to energy storage. As we plow funds into Batteries and praise the success of the TVA, the proponents will need to do a great job of emphasizing the non-scientific reasons for the switch -- and that is very valid. But I ask the proponents of alternative fuels to limit the pointing to conspiracy, war-machines, and crony-capitalism as the reasons for our current fossil fuel economy. It may have devolved into our present situation, but the engineers and scientists had perfectly sound reasons for using carbon oxidation in the first place.


Dave Palmer
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Re: Redistribution of Energy Production
Dave Palmer   1/15/2012 2:42:19 PM
@williamlweaver: Actually, hydrogen only looks good from the standpoint of specific energy (energy per unit mass). From the standpoint of energy density (energy per unit volume), it doesn't come close to hydrocarbons unless it is very highly compressed. This only reinforces your point about hydrocarbons being a good energy storage medium in terms of concentrating a lot of energy in a small space. However, as you point out, this is far from the only important consideration. In fact, in some cases it's not even meaningful. For example, does it make any sense to compare a gallon of water going over a dam to a gallon of gasoline being burned in an internal combustion engine? For one thing, a gallon of water in a river doesn't cost $4.

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Re: Redistribution of Energy Production
williamlweaver   1/15/2012 3:00:19 PM
Elegantly stated, Dave. There are so many factors that go into turning each of these sources into a viable solution. The difficulty is that these factors are often best considered in the free market --- where each of the systematic factors can be explored. My personal difficulty is with blue-ribbon panel of scientists that are assembled to "calculate" decided science and the Federal Government then selectively funds those efforts and creates crippling regulations, reviews and licences for the others. 

We've lived through this many times before: Lunar-based Navigation, Langley's powered flight program, The Human Genome Project... each of these benefited from collaborative efforts from the free market. An antagonistic approach only benefits those in power.

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Cart before the Horse?
didymus7   1/16/2012 9:04:36 AM
Personally, I think the whole battery discussion is starting from the back end of the problem.  Square 1 is that any conversion process loses energy.  So the first step in a comprehensive overhaul of energy has to start with the basic generation.  To me, having electric cars means nothing if we have to create more oil/coal/gas buring power plants to charge them.  This would make electric cars a 2nd tier of energy conversion and since conversion processes lose energy, would cause more usuage rather than less.

Battery research is now popular and sexy, but until we get a reliable, low-polluting, high efficiency source of electricity to charge all those electric cars, we will pollute more, rather than less.

How about getting the basics down first?

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Look at the entire system...
HEC   1/16/2012 9:29:10 AM
Almost every effort has been focused on changing the vehicles in the system - but no one looks at the system itself.  The technology exists today to make all of the traffic signals "smart" such that they leave the main road green unless someone is waiting at the side street.  This could be done optically.  This change would work for every user (read vehicle) in the system. The multiplier effect would be huge fuel savings nationally.

It takes a huge quantity of energy to re-accelerate a vehicle compared to the traveling the same distance at the speed they had been going.  If our country is serious about reducing fuel consumption, then we need to look at the entire system - not just part of it.  I am not saying we should not work on more efficient batteries, but guess is that the investment in this idea would have a better return than the investment in electric vehicles. 

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Re: Cart before the Horse?
applegrl   1/16/2012 10:06:01 AM
I agree with your assessment.  I was told years ago that the electric generation process was only about 15% efficient (start to finish, including mining coal, etc.)

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Re: Redistribution of Energy Production
herbissimus   1/16/2012 11:47:56 AM
i see alot of numbers here, but the numbers that matter more are 1.1 billion indians, 1.3 billion chinese, upwards of 3 billion other 3rd world going on first world people who thirst for admission to the middle class.

so whatever transportation device or modality had better take these numbers into account or from this perspective its not going to matter much what the 300 million americans do.

7billion / 300million = around 1/20th of the problem we all face on this little blue marble hurtling through space

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Re: Redistribution of Energy Production
RobLewis   1/16/2012 12:16:04 PM
Free market, schmee market. As has been demonstrated countless times, the "free market" is good at one thing: allocation of scarce resources IN THE SHORT TERM. For long-term projects requiring bold vision and unusual risk-taking, forget it.

We would have no microchip industry today if we had simply left it all up to the free market. The Defense Department's willingness to pay "above market" prices to get the benefits of miniaturized digital circuits got the whole ball rolling.

IMO, the government should be shoveling money at any technology that offers a reasonable hope of improving our energy prospects, in the full expectation that many of them won't ultimately prove out. Call it "waste" if you want, but we often learn more from our failures than from our successes. And this is the kind of long-term, multi-pronged, high-risk effort that the so-called free market just can't address.

D. Sherman
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Triumphs of engineering
D. Sherman   1/16/2012 12:17:12 PM
The history of engineering shows that the longer people have been trying unsuccessfully to solve a given problem, the less likely it is that a solution exists. "Breakthroughs" tend to come when the field of investigation is still fresh. When the concept of electric batteries was first discovered, they were obviously extremely useful and so lots of effort went into experimenting will all sorts of chemical combinations and mechanical structures. Most of the basic chemistries used today are a century old, with improvements only in manufacturing processes. Some of the "obsolete" technologies were elegant in their simplicity, such as the "crow's foot" battery used for railway signaling. It consisted of two simple chemical solutions, one foating on top of the other, with a simple heavy cast electrode in the bottom. Its great advantage was that it could provide a small amount of current for a very long time (sound familiar?). If it wasn't for the fact taht it would spill if tipped over, it would be great for today's micropower sensors and telemetry devices.

Even the "new" lithium batteries are really only "new" in the sense of metalic lithium becoming widely available, and new manufacturing processes that can harness lithium's energetic reactions in a way that keeps the battery from self-discharging or catching fire and yet still provides electricity when needed.

Virtually every article in the popular press about battery "breakthroughs" ends up being about either supercapacitors, incremental manufacturing improvements, or theoretical research that is far from producing any sort of product. The articles typically then go on to repeat the standard points about all the great things we could do if we had better batteries, and when the government should fund more research. What is missing is any reporting on an actual functional, manufacturable battery that is truly a breakthrough in terms of energy density (one order of magnitude improvement would be a nice start) over anything currently available. Currently, in terms of how far it can propel a vehicle, the Chevy Volt's complicated and expensive battery pack is equivalent to about one gallon of gasoline.

Like nuclear fusion, battery "breakthroughs" seem destined to always be the energy source of the future. The public has been led (mostly by writers) to believe that the way to get useful new inventions is for the government to throw money at the problem. "It worked with nuclear fusion. so it should work with everything else" is the fallacious argument. If you can turn desired technologies into practical products just by having the government throw money at them, why waste time on batteries? Why not have the government fund the invention of anti-gravity machines and Star Trek "transporters"?

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