Monday, December 21, 2009

Here, optimism!

You had me at "digital quantum battery":
Hubler claims the resulting power density (the speed at which energy can be stored or released) could be orders of magnitude greater, and the energy density (the amount of energy that can be stored) two to 10 times greater than possible with today's best lithium-ion and other battery technologies.

What's more, digital quantum batteries could be fabricated using existing lithographic chip-manufacturing technologies using cheap, nontoxic materials, such as iron and tungsten, atop a silicon substrate, he says. The resulting devices would, in principal, waste little or no energy as they absorbed and released electrons. Hubler says it may be possible to build a benchtop prototype in one year.
Ten times better than lithium-ion, in a power-dense capacitor? Pretty nifty. Built out of common elements instead of increasingly-dear lithium? Much better.

It's no exagerration to say that the things that brighten my day are mostly stories about energy storage. Renewable energy production is basically a solved problem at this point: transmission is expensive, but basically a known quantity. Storage is the last nut to crack, and it's actually coming along nicely.

It also gives me a good example of the difference between efficiency and resiliency that I keep harping on. From an article emailed to me by a friend many, many months ago:
Why not just upgrade to a so-called "smart grid" as President Obama has proposed in his economic stimulus package? There are complications, Nocera said.

"First you have to rebuild the grid because the one we have now is a creaky machine from the 1920s, and we keep trying to retrofit it," he said. "Then you're going to have computers trying to manage the energy, which brings up issues like security. You have to make it really secure so you don't have people hacking into things. And then politics. Just wait until you try to run power lines through someone's backyard.
The idea of the smart grid is basically the "efficiency" paradigm: the electrical grid does not, currently, do a good job of sorting out different uses of electricity and determining any kind of value or priority, the way you get (albeit amorally) in a market situation. Enter various smart grid proposals, where hypothetically the grid will know whether there's enough juice to let you turn on your AC or maybe just turn it down a few degrees for you. (Glazing over a varied and huge field for time's sake.) What they all have in common is adding a lot more information and intelligence to the grid.

The other side of the spectrum would be to simply build super-massive battery banks to act as a massive reservoir to both even out the daily fluctuations and provide security to the grid. Now obviously there's virtue to both approaches -- even something as basic as time-of-use pricing is a way of adding information to the electrical system -- but I'd like to emphasize the need for resiliency as well as efficiency: not only would a hypothetical home energy storage system be a good complement to time-of-use pricing, it also gives us things that even the smartest of smart grids simply can't, like a natural demand for renewable energy.

Some kind of small, home-scale energy storage system would be really revolutionary, and there are at least a half-dozen competing technologies out there that could do it.

1 comment:

Gar Lipow said...

Every one of these super duper storage techniques requires further development. We know how to do comparatively inexpensive smart grids now. In general if we are serious about switching off fossil fuels, here is what we can do now:

1) Solar and Wind, shaped by small amounts of geothermal, hydro, a few hours of storage and even smaller amounts of natural gas.

2) Connected by long distance grids to minimize need for such shaping and storage.

3) With the addition of smart grids to further minimize the need for such shaping and storage.

If we get cheap storage we can add it later on.
3) With a smart grid added to minimize the need for such