Sunday, January 24, 2016

Right in the Solar Plexus

The Achilles Heel of alternative energy is storage. No matter how advanced our batteries are – from nickel metal hydride to lithium ion to those announcements and examples of new battery technologies: PDP device (based on a physical reaction), aluminum air, a new kind of battery-ultracapacitor hybrid based on barium-titanate powders, dual carbon, etc., etc. – we have a massive challenge to keep every watt of renewable energy we harvest. Using new low-resistance transmission cables – such as the new carbon fiber lines – can reduce power loss as electricity flows across vast distances. We all know that so many macro-problems on earth are energy-related. Greenhouse gasses and global climate change, growth capacity particularly in low-capital developing nations, and patterns involving the future of the nature and design of cities, to name a few.
Battery issues range from a heavy dependence on expensive and exhaustible rare earth elements, high costs, toxic waste disposal, insufficient useful life and bulky size. It is one of the greatest challenges facing the energy research community, one where the U.S. government seems slowly to be passing the buck to private industry. Stupid idea that makes patent-seekers in Korea, Japan, Russia and, very critically, China, laugh all the way to the bank. It will be workers and companies from those countries that make the money and get the jobs. Unless…
Thank goodness that we still have a few top-of-the-line researchers who continue to push despite government cutbacks in research grants. As some institutions focus on new technologies storing electricity in the form of electricity, perhaps there is a way to find physical and chemical reactions created by adding energy that will release roughly the same amount of energy in reverse later by undoing those reactions. It may be easier to find chemicals and physical items that are both stable (not dangerous) and easier to store than a traditional battery.
All hail, Massachusetts Institute of Technology! It’s a baby step, but it may revolutionize the science of energy storage in a big way. “Researchers at MIT have invented a new transparent polymer film that allows heat to be harvested from the sun and saved for later use. Unlike traditional methods of storing solar energy, which takes heat from the sun and stores it as electricity, the new solar heat-storing transparent polymer film takes the sun’s energy and saves it in a chemical state. Once saved, the stored solar heat can be unleashed via a simple chemical reaction.
“‘Whereas heat inevitably dissipates over time no matter how good the insulation around it, a chemical storage system can retain the energy indefinitely in a stable molecular configuration, until its release is triggered by a small jolt of heat (or light or electricity),’ explains MIT News.
“Previous attempts at storing solar heat in a chemical state had limited utility because they were designed to be used in liquid solutions, according to David Zhitomirsky, one of the postdocs credited with the finding. However, since the new material takes the form of a solid-state film, it can be integrated with a wider array of products. The film is so thin it can be sandwiched between the layers of glass that make up a windshield or even woven into clothing. Once woven into an object, the material would just need a slight blast of heat or electricity to unleash the stored energy, which can warm a surface up by as much as 10C (50F).
“This could mean clothes you wear during daylight hours could soak up heat reserves for later in the night. Since the new material is transparent it could also be used in the front windshields of cars to automatically melt ice that forms. Unlike rear car windows, which usually have heating wires embedded in them to melt ice, laws forbid such wires from being placed in front windows because they could obstruct the driver’s view.
“But what’s even better from a practical standpoint as far as automobiles are concerned is that the new solar heat-storing material reduces the energy drain that electric cars experience in cold weather as much of their energy is diverted to heating and deicing. This energy drain can reduce EV driving ranges by as much as 30%. Instead if those electric vehicles could store extra heat in a chemical reaction, their battery’s energy would be free to be diverted to other functions.”, January 8th. Using the device that is to be powered as the storage device same weight and space.
Reliance on rare earths, unsustainable under any analysis, is no longer mission critical. We have a few more years of research before this becomes a generally-available power storage standard, but just looking at this general notion of storage, you can easily see how many more options the future holds to solve so many of earth’s problems.
Reducing reliance on fossil fuels has deeply powerful side-benefits. It de-emphasizes the political force in such problematical areas Middle East and Russia, reduces our need to introduce fracking chemicals deep underground where it can pollute aquifers, and cleans up our atmosphere to help stem that global warming trend that has proven to be so destructive. The ability to store electricity more easily means that we can take advantage of sun, wind, oceanic activity, etc. when and where it is available and use our newfound storage devises to keep that power when such forces are less productive. I believe that our government must amp up its pure research grants to the best researchers on earth: American colleges, universities and dedicated research institutions. Time for Congress to wake up and do something we all need for a viable future!
I’m Peter Dekom, and if we believe in America, then we (read: our government) must invest in America!

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