“On your actual brink”


batteryI don’t know why, but I love the line: “So here we are, on your actual brink,” from the movie 2010: The Year We Make Contact.  In 2010, NSA Chairman Victor Milson was talking about the imminent threat of World War III; but I think of those words whenever I read a new article about something new we’ve discovered or developed about battery technology, energy storage and solar photovoltaic improvements.

You may not realize how close we are to a paradigm shift in energy collection, storage and distribution.

As we delve into the qualities of the chains of single carbon atoms known as Fullerenes, learn how to lay down single layers of other atoms, and devise optical signal channels to replace traditional electronics, we keep discovering previously unknown ways to input, store and output greater amounts of energy, ways to capture a wider wavelength of light by photovoltaics, ways to minimize loss, heat buildup and leakage, ways to build more efficient electronics, and even safe ways to wirelessly transmit energy from place to place.

Self-cooling solar cells boost power, last longer

We are amazingly close to solar cells that achieve a 50% efficiency in energy collection, without the performance drop-off caused by excessive heat build-up.  We have almost learned enough to create batteries that will hold 10-100 times the energy of current batteries, take scant seconds to charge and be able to produce enough power to move cars as if they were powered by rocket fuel.

Holey graphene framework boosts the energy density of electrochemical capacitors

When that happens, we can literally say goodbye to the gasoline economy.  Cars will be able to drive cross-country on electricity, needing to stop maybe only four times for a minute-long charge (or possibly getting recharged from the road itself).  Homes can be powered by rooftop solar arrays and store their excess energy in basement storage cells, cutting their reliance on centralized power grids except in emergencies.

Stacked solar cells could make solar power cheaper than natural gas

Appliances like cellphones and tablets will see the first benefits: They will be able to last for weeks of constant use on a single charge, and only require about 30 seconds’ proximity  to a wireless node to recharge.  Compared to today’s need to be constantly mindful of usage, charge and availability of convenient power sources and cables, devices that seemingly never cease to run will seem like Clarke magic.

Charging with ultrasound: uBeam has functional prototype

And for once, we’re not talking about something our grandchildren may enjoy.  We are scant years away from the building and tooling of the first factories to start churning out these solar cells and manufacturing these batteries.  We are close to an explosion of electric vehicles, optimized to run on the latest battery technology.

Researchers create ‘Holy Grail’ of battery technology, smartphones with 3x battery life in sight

We are on the actual brink.  We will see these advances in our hands.  Soon.  Think of it.


3 thoughts on ““On your actual brink”

  1. From Jim Kratzer on Facebook:

    I sincerely hope you’re right, Steven. My biggest concern is the same one Robert Heinlein voiced in Friday, regarding (David?) Shipstone and his creations; the major-league attempts to kill him and his invention by the utility companies, the oil companies, the auto companies, and the various governments. Also, the cost of conversion to those battery-power systems WILL create a HUGE disruption in society unless it’s handled carefully and gradually. IF it’s done properly, it will be a paradigm shift that literally brings about “the greatest thing since canned beer” or whatever superlative you want to use – but OH BOY! is it going to be a massive headache for all hands.


  2. My response to Jim:

    The utility companies are surely watching all of this closely, but as they are now very well aware of the rising costs of business as they approach “peak oil,” they must already be forced to consider retooling to accommodate the future. They are fully capable of beginning the process of adding battery-based power distribution to their portfolios, so they can slowly faze out oil as prices swing in favor of batteries. (This would also minimize societal disruption, which would only look good for utility companies in the long run.)

    But they avoid doing so at their peril; for, eventually, the obvious price points will tip, and the people will vote with their wallets for the less-expensive, less-environmentally-damaging solar and battery technology. And in this case, there’s no one person or organization that Big Oil can attack to stave off the inevitable.

    In my book Chasing the Light, the oil-based companies that were generally referred to as “Big Oil” managed to change their popular moniker to “All-Power.” We all need to be reminded that oil isn’t the only game in town… especially the utility and power companies, and the governments that prop them up.


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