We need better batteries. Or rather, we need better ways to storing energy. If we had methods that could store more energy, with fewer energy losses, in a smaller, lighter package, we would have more cost-effective options for moving away from today’s destructive-but-cheap energy sources.
I’m not just talking about electric cars (although, yes, please! Make me a better electric car, please!), but about every bit of tech that consumes electricity — and some devices that we don’t have because adding a battery would be too much of a hassle. That includes things like a whole-house uninterruptable power supply or air-quality testers built into every urban street intersection, or Tupperware that is normally clear but turns black if it detects harmful levels of bacteria or molds in your leftovers.
Today’s alkaline Duracells use, basically, 100-year-old chemistry. You put a goopy electrolyte between two electrodes, roll it up like a jellyroll, wrap up the whole thing with just two conductors (one from each electrode) sticking out, and hope it doesn’t leak too soon. This works, and is fairly shelf-stable, which is why we’ve stuck to it for so long. (Hey, it beats Leyden jars.) And developments in lithium-ion and metal-hydrides have improved the performance of batteries, even with a few missteps that cause things like flaming laptops.
Stanford is using carbon nanotubes to make paper highly conductive, and (if I’m reading this correctly) is using it to make efficient, and light, capacitors. This isn’t what I would have predicted, but the ratio of energy that can be stored to the weight looks pretty good. Take a look at the Youtube video.
But, it gets better! They’re also using cloth. Which means you could store energy in your clothing. Think about it! Your t-shirt could power your iPod. (I’m tempted to make a rude joke about power in one’s pants.)
I found this story, by the way, while I was poking around the website for the Smart Fabrics 2010 meeting in Florida (We are suffering through March in New England: of course, I would love to be sent on assignment to Florida!).
Some more links:
For more info about the paper energy storage, there’s the Stanford press release about batteries made of paper, or the abstract of the PNAS journal paper.
For more info about the cloth energy storage, there’s another Stanford press release, about batteries made of cloth, as well as the abstract of the ACS Nano Letters journal paper.