The 20th century was a time of extraordinary growth and change. In the first half of that century, relatively new technologies like electricity and telecommunications indelibly altered every aspect of life. In the latter half of the 20th century, computers radically reshaped work and play. Can you guess what were the two most powerful images from the 20th century? If you guessed the mushroom cloud (so well understood it requires no explanation here) and the haunting earthrise photo of our planet floating in space from Apollo 8 – you are absolutely correct.
The mushroom cloud rising from a nuclear bomb detonation signaled the first globally destructive impact of energy. Fossil fuels are the second form of energy to be globally destructive, but the consequences are not as dramatically conveyed as in the photo of one mushroom cloud. The earthrise photo engendered a profound psychological shift in the way we thought about planet Earth. It showed us the relative fragility of our existence – we’re committed to one planet and don’t have extra planets lying around in case we need them.
What will be the indelible images for the 21st century? It’s early in the first 50 years, but I’ll suggest that a battery we haven’t seen yet in commercial form will be one of the most powerful and defining technological influences for this century. The innovations in materials and form factors or designs will rapidly accelerate energy storage technology choices while costs to manufacture, and ultimately, prices, will plummet. And what’s really cool is that some research looks to nature for inspiration and subsequent imitation.
Harvard University is exploring the application of organic molecules found in rhubarb called quinones. It’s the first time that a flow battery* is based on something other than a mineral substance like zinc or sodium. It may not be the last time. This initial research success should impel more investigations into other organic materials that can store energy. After all, plants have had millions of years of evolution to perfect their brilliant photosynthesis of light into stored energy.
Battery technology can change in form factor concepts too. A couple of years ago I chatted with an innovative battery company that mentioned that changing an electrode liquid in a battery could vastly change the range for a battery-powered vehicle. A “fill up” of this liquid could substitute for a more time=consuming plug in charge for long distance trips. Argonne National Laboratory and the Illinois Institute of Technology, with funding from ARPA-E (Advanced Research Projects Agency for Energy) are leveraging nanotechnologies to develop liquids capable of delivering sufficient electrical conductivity ion concentrations that are friendly for transportation uses – like being embedded in a car.
These research directions have promising results that bode well for improvements in energy storage durability and transportability as well as reduced costs. Quinones may be eclipsed by other organic molecules in the future. The model for an electrode liquid exchange may change in time, but the implications are clear. We’re only at the very beginning of a very exciting 5 – 10 years of battery innovations. Regardless of the innovation, batteries will mirror the solar technology trends of increases in efficiencies and decreases in manufacturing costs. And that is critically important to accelerate the deployment of domestic intermittent renewable energy sources for Smart Grid applications in electricity generation and transportation.
* A flow battery is a battery technology that uses an active element in a liquid electrolyte that is pumped through a membrane to produce an electrical current. The full definition can be found at the Smart Grid Dictionary 5th Edition.