The lowly battery gets a make-over

We’ve touched on the areas of energy conservation and storage a bit over the last few months – with a short post on graphene-related research, and more recently with 88 Acres, which is all about Microsoft’s foray into the use of smart building technology. Stefan Weitz has recently delved into the area of power consumption and has a few cool projects to highlight.

 I recently attended a working session for the upcoming G8 Summit. It was a room full of people from technology, government, energy production, ecology, non-profits and academia – all focused on overcoming one of society’s biggest challenges: providing access to energy for all.

Nearly 1.5 billion people across the world lack access to reliable sources of electricity, which has profound effects on global health, environmental degradation, and standards of living. And despite the debates over the best way to address this issue, it was abundantly clear that today’s energy production model isn’t up to the task. (A great TED talk outlining the issue can be seen here).

When you turn on a light, the power company must immediately generate and transmit enough electricity so the filament glows brightly. When you shut it off, the power company must scale back its production (a non-trivial task when you’re talking about water-powered turbines!) or figure out what to do with the excess power that’s no longer needed.

It’s a vexing problem that could be partially solved if only we had better technology in one key area: batteries.

Ah, the humble battery. It’s one of my favorite things to complain about. As the need for stored power has soared, the fundamentals of battery technology have not kept up with the increasing demands of our portable PCs, tablets, phones, and sensors.

In addition to solving “first-world problems,” like not being able to snap a picture of your lobster thermidor because your phone died, better battery technology could begin to modernize our electrical grid and help leverage the abundant solar, wind, geothermal, wave and biofuel sources that could electrify all of those people who lack access.

If we could capture and store the electricity generated by these variable resources, we could make progress in closing the power gap. Fortunately, for the first time in decades, we are seeing some real commercial advances, not only in storage but also in efficiency.

For large scale energy storage, a new company is using inexpensive, earth-abundant materials to develop a “liquid battery”. Unlike traditional batteries that contain solid parts, this battery’s insides literally melt together under the high temperatures generated by the charging and discharging of the batteries. The result is a battery with higher “power density,” i.e. how much energy per kilogram a battery can store. Ambri, based its battery on research from MIT and is able to storage massive amounts of energy in 16 square-inch bricks that are stacked together in refrigerator-sized containers.

For more personal uses, like powering electric cars and tablets, a breakthrough from Northwestern University in Chicago promises some exciting advances through the use of graphene. I had the chance to meet the CEO last week and was immediately impressed by how quickly they took a concept to prototype.

Graphene is essentially a one atom thick piece of carbon. And besides being staggeringly beautiful when combined with silicon nanoparticles, SiNode Systems is able to boost how much power a standard lithium-ion battery can store by 10 times, and can make charging 10 times faster.

Closer to home, there’s some awesome research out of the University of Washington that’s making waves – or rather using them – to power small devices like thermostats, watches and parking meters. We are all constantly bathed in radio waves from cell phones, radio stations, Wi-Fi devices and dozens of other sources. Researchers are working on ways to harvest and convert those waves into electricity. The technology generates low amounts of power but the idea that small devices would never need to have their batteries replaced or recharged is pretty exciting.

In addition to these advances in energy storage, many organizations are working on ways to use the power we have more efficiently.

A couple weeks ago, Intel released its next-generation chips, codenamed Haswell, that will power many of the world’s computing devices. The chips promise 50% improvement in battery life while also increasing performance. I personally can’t wait to see the devices that will take advantage of this new battery-sipping technology.

One of the biggest uses of power in the home is lighting. It’s number two behind space cooling, comprising 14% of all power used in the home. And 12% of all U.S. energy capacity is taken up by lighting – both commercial and residential. Clearly there are opportunities to use power more efficiently, and some great innovators are working hard on that. For home lighting, we’re rapidly moving away from incandescent bulbs to LEDs, which generate less heat, have a far longer life and offer great advances in lighting as they use only 20% the power of incandescent bulbs.

They are still relatively expensive when compared to traditional bulbs but at least one company is looking at alternative lighting solutions for the mass market. Lucidity Lights, founded by the same person who brought you IdeaPaint, is still very much in stealth mode but the company claims that its alternative lighting methods will be cheaper and will look like incandescent lighting.

Another major consumer of electricity is street lighting. On a recent visit to Guadalajara I saw a Mexican-owned company engineering and manufacturing a next-generation street lamp. Using 7th generation LED lighting (the most advanced in the world), Pounce Electronics is able to build a streetlight that uses half the power of traditional bulbs. Even better, they are integrating Wi-Fi into the lights, meaning utilities and cities could blanket entire metro areas with Wi-Fi access for consumer and governmental applications.

In the end, providing access to energy for all will require pioneering technology for storage, as well as how we consume the power we generate.

As we continue to demand more from our devices we can take comfort in knowing that companies are pushing hard on the conventional wisdom. And while I’ll appreciate the ability to tweet a few more pithy words of wisdom before running out of juice, the societal impacts for those 1.5 billion people will be much more profound.