The power of invention


There’s no question that the world is facing an energy crisis. Our growing demand for fossil fuels, coupled with their geographic concentration, is putting more and more pressure on price. There’s also concern over the greenhouse-gas emissions associated with combustion, and their impact on climate change. But we can’t solve our energy shortage simply through more drilling or conservation. We have to fix our problems the good, old-fashioned way: through invention.

Demand for electricity is not constant. It fluctuates dramatically with consumer usage. A lot of the capacity of coal, gas, and nuclear generating plants is essentially dormant, waiting to click in when demand rises. But those peaks cannot always be anticipated, and traditional generating stations need time to respond. Even when they can, the grid itself is at risk of overload.

We’ve heard a lot of talk over the past decade or so about the potential of green energy. Hydro was the original eco-friendly source, harnessing the power of fast-flowing water to run turbines. But you can’t just build a hydro generating station anywhere – you need to have the right topography and the right geology.

Wind and sun, on the other hand, can be found just about everywhere, but the power that’s drawn from them is inconsistent and intermittent. The wind doesn’t always blow hard and the sun doesn’t always shine brightly. In meeting peak demand, then, wind and solar are often not there when you need them.

We have to find a way to store energy when it’s plentiful and use it when we need it most. While many have tried to address the problem, no existing battery technology has proven capable of meeting the performance requirements of the grid: uncommonly high power, long service lifetime, and super low cost.

So that’s what I, and a team of bright young MIT students and post-docs, set out to create.

I took inspiration from the Hall-Héroult cell, which revolutionized the production of aluminum. The cell actually has nothing to do with energy storage or electricity generation. In fact, the Hall-Héroult cell is a giant consumer of electricity. But I thought, “What if this device could be reversed to make a cell that can store and deliver electrical energy?”

With this in mind, my team at MIT created a battery that generates enough heat to maintain the necessary high operating temperature, while accumulating a surplus of energy to provide a useable source of power on demand. This way, the battery stores energy as it’s being generated, but also allows some fraction to be used in real time. From there, it’s just a matter of figuring out how to balance it so that the consumer sees continuous supply.

There’s real economic value in this. We pay a lot to have standby capacity that rarely gets used, and this battery would correct that. Knowing that we could meet peak demands with the energy that’s already stored in the system, we would no longer need to generate – and thus pay for – a huge excess of our daily energy needs.

From the university research stage, we’ve now formed a company, Liquid Metal Battery Corporation, that’s attracting the kind of outside investment needed to move beyond the prototypes towards production.

Although these batteries are huge compared to what powers your flashlight or laptop, they’re silent – no moving parts – and emissions free. You could put them places you’d never dream of building a generator fired by non-renewable energy sources. More importantly, they have what it takes to turn renewable energy sources into base-load grid contributors.

Inventing our way out of this energy shortage requires making better use of coal, nuclear, and hydro, as we have them today, and then enabling the new means – solar and wind – to become participants.

Because of their intermittency, wind and solar power have remained in the wings of energy production. We’re now developing a means of moving them towards center stage.

© Japan Today

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There’s no question that the world is facing an energy crisis.

Actually, there is a question. There's enough oil to last another three or four hundred years. The amount of "oil left" has been INCREASING over the past fifty years. The better technology gets, the more oil they discover. Also, as technology increases, they discover cleaner ways to use it.

As far as electric companies not providing enough power (e.g. requiring blackouts) that's not due to the energy source itself, it's due to mismanagement by government officials.

There are many who believe that left to its own devices, the free market (which the world has never truly seen) would come up with plenty of energy to meet the needs.

Sadly, the more governments get involved, the more problems we have. Even if they discovered some magical way to get billions of watts of a square foot of solar panel, the government would figure out a way to regulate, subsidize or otherwise mess it up.

It's not an energy crisis, it's a government/management crisis.

2 ( +5 / -3 )

Except the 'New Oil' found is much harder to retrieve from down below than it was. Squeezing oil out of rocks takes more energy and money than simply pumping it out of the ground. Even Saudi Arabia is starting to drill offshore, 3 1/2 times the price of drilling and pumping on land.

1 ( +2 / -1 )

Except the 'New Oil' found is much harder to retrieve from down below than it was.

That's true. But as prices rise, that will signal the oil industry that it's worth getting. The oil we get today couldn't have been retrieved using 1950's technology. In fifty years or so, oil that's "too hard" to get today will be a lot easier.

Also, alternatives to oil will be much further developed. I see no reason to rely on any kind of government intervention to move things along. They'll just do the opposite, which is slow things down.

One of the reasons for the oil spill in the gulf a couple years ago was that regulations which wouldn't allow drilling in shallower waters forced deep water drilling. That's a lot more difficult than shallower waters.

Leave the energy industry alone, and leave the government out of it, and everything will be fine.

-1 ( +2 / -3 )

Amory Lovins has a good TED talk "A 40 year plan for Energy". He talks a lot about the power of invention.

4 ( +4 / -0 )

Actually, the most important area for innvoation is energy conservation. After all, 1 J of energy will stay 1 J of energy no matter how inventive You are. That's basic science. But the critical number is eta, the efficiency, by which that energy is transformed from one state to the other. There are limiting factors from science - like the second law of thermodynamics - and those from human society. The last point hasn't been fixed by nature (or god, if you like), but mere human complacency. That's where politics comes into the game, since science cannot change the way how humans behave and how humans don't think.

There is another concept which takes this even one step further. This is generating LNG from carbon dioxide in the air and storing it for later use. This - in contrast to such a battery - even creates energy storage with mobility.

3 ( +3 / -0 )

I applaud the efforts to create this new type of battery that may revolutionize electricity generation. If I understand correctly, it will act as an intermediary step between power output and demand, storing electricity surplus when the latter is lower than the former. I'm not technically minded but I think it's right to say that storing electricity hasn't been possible at a large scale until now and that's a major roadblock to overcome on the way to renewable energy. Professor Sadoway's invention could make electricity generation more flexible and manageable allowing for an easier switch to solar and wind power generation. However, it's still not clear whether this invention will be really practical and profitable.

While it's good to think critically and raise questions and doubts about some issues mentioned in the article, let's appreciate the invention for what it's worth.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

Do you appreciate innovations that can save you money, time and even your life? If so, here are a few forthcoming instances of future tech that will please your inner futurist. You can get an installment loan for the new invention you want.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

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