Believe in a better battery
Friday, February 8, 2013
Living here in the future certainly has been a disappointment. Check the futurist predictions back in 1968, when Stanley Kubrick released the masterpiece “2001: A Space Odyssey,” and see that by now we expected to be lunching on the PanAm Mars shuttle or asking HAL to open the pod bay doors. We wanted antigravity hovercraft in every garage and our jet packs hanging on the coat rack at work. Technological progress was a sure thing. All we had to do was believe with maximum sincerity, like the audience bringing Tinkerbell back to life. It turned out to be not so easy, not so sure. We haven’t figured out how to store the energy.
A few years ago someone surveyed a group of deep thinking professional futurists about their long-ago predictions, disappointments with present technology and where they missed the mark. Most bemoaned our insufficient progress. One wit said that he was mostly satisfied, “Except I did expect longer battery life.”
A battery. If we only had a better, more efficient, more reliable way to store electrical energy, so many of our dreams would come true. “Batteries are a hugely important technology,” read a recent report on advanced battery research in The Economist. “Modern life would be impossible without them. But many engineers find them disappointing and feel that they could be better still. Produce the right battery at the right price, these engineers think, and you could make the internal-combustion engine redundant and usher in a world in which free fuel, in the form of wind and solar energy, was the norm. That would be a revolution.”
Yes it would. Build a big battery that was reasonably economical and all the intermittent power from windmills and solar cells could be socked away for when it was actually needed. Renewable power would be suddenly useful. Build a battery that is light and powerful and quickly rechargeable and we wouldn’t need to drive around with big tanks of fossil fuel. We could just flip a switch and drive off.
There has been progress, but highly advertised wishful thinking has contributed to unrealistic expectations, major waste and ruined reputations. “We can replace our dependence on oil with biofuels and become the first country to have a million electric vehicles on the road by 2015,” said President Obama in 2011. We aren’t going to make it. At the start of the year total electric vehicle sales were still under 50,000 units total, according to Bloomberg, which is about 5 percent of the Obama pace. January figures showed Nissan sold 650 units of its all-electric Leaf, after moving 1,489 in December. Ford built 1,627 Focus EVs in 2012 and sold 685.
Build a better battery. The battery pack in a Chevrolet Volt plug-in hybrid weighs 435 pounds and stores the energy equivalent of a gallon of gasoline, which as you know will run you less than $4. A Nissan Leaf can run nearly 70 miles on a charge, a bit over two gallons’ worth. A charge takes hours. The federal government has invested around $5 billion in electric vehicles, Bloomberg reported, including loans and grants to automakers, battery makers, and prospective owners. So far, wishing it was so hasn’t made it so. You can’t Tinkerbell an electric car to life.
Hope lives. Faith is strong. Governments around the world, including ours, are investing heavily in basic research in hopes of making the battery breakthrough. The Department of Energy issued a $120 million grant to a battery Manhattan Project called the Joint Center for Energy Storage Research. It gathers the best minds, the best scientists, the best engineers, from our national laboratories and universities. The goal is 5-5-5 — “Make batteries five times more powerful and five times cheaper in five years,” The Economist said. They are delving in tiny batteries, to run everything from phones to vehicles, and big batteries to store energy for the power grid. It’s big stuff.
I dearly wish they succeed. I want my electric car. I want my jet pack. I believe. I really do.
Tracy Warner’s column appears Thursdays and Fridays. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 665-1163.
MORE LIKE THIS
Wednesday, May 22
WVC Hepcats Swing Dance Classes
Wenatchee Valley Senior Activity Center, 7 p.m.
Thursday, May 23
BNI Better Business Boosters
Rivertop Bar & Grill, 201 N. Wenatchee Ave., 7:30 a.m.
Thursday, May 23
BNI High Noon Achievers
Red Lion Hotel, noon
Thursday, May 23
S.T.Y.L.E. Boot Camp!
Wenatchee Valley Mall, space A-4, 6:30 p.m.