Thursday, March 1, 2012

TED 2012: Batteries - Think Big and Think Cheap

Computers follow Moore's Law - the power of computing will approximately double every 18 months.  A variety of other fields which are primarily information-based are jumping on that same curve.  That's what happened in genetics, for instance.  It's basically an information-based science, so it's now careening along that curve.  Most sciences have gone that way.  Except for batteries. Batteries haven't improved much at all.

Yet, batteries are critical to the exploitation of intermittent energy from renewable sources.  And until we can integrate giant battery storage sinks into our electrical grid, we will be trapped into building transmission systems for peak capacity.

Donald Sadoway thinks he has a breakthrough that will solve these issues.  It involves a low cost battery which is operated at high levels of heat, using magnesium and antimony separated by molten salt.  It's a dirt cheap design.  The energy generated by the battery is enough to maintain heat for its operation.  A couple of his students have formed a company which has attracted investment from Bill Gates and expects to bring a product to market in a couple of years.

This could be a huge breakthrough in the energy field - exciting stuff.  And it goes completely against the traditional wisdom in batteries that you can't let a battery get hot; on the contrary, this battery depends on being hot to operate.

There were some interesting aspects of this talk, from a presentation point of view, some good and some bad.
  • TED is known for its whizz-bang presentations (and it's getting to be ever more produced, but more about that later).  Sadoway was refreshing in his highly effective use of that old-fashioned device, the blackboard.  Bravo!
  • Although the majority of TED attendees are American, the conference attracts people from many countries and strives for a world view.  Sadoway was notable for presenting this as an American problem (hmm, does the rest of the world not need to solve energy issues?) that would be solved by American ingenuity (are there no scientists outside America?). 
  • It was also one of the most arrogant talks I've heard at TED, chock full of first person pronouns.
 Having said that, if Sadoway and Gates are right in believing in this invention, it is very good news indeed.

No comments: