I usually avoid writing about research that has not been done yet. I get press releases every day about grants awarded to universities and private companies to pursue one research project or another. There is always some reason those grants are awarded, some prior research that indicates a potential finding. The early indications of what could happen in combination with the verification of wonderfulness of the research team demonstrated by six or seven figures of dollars being provided to develop the work results in a press release with promise. The thing is, the potential results often don’t turn out, or turn out very differently than expected. The end product may be very worthwhile in the end, of course. However, disseminating information about research projects at the early stages mostly serves to spread misinformation because a potential finding will be mistaken for a result, and the result that never happened (or has not happened yet) gets out there even though it is not real.
But, I just heard about a project I want to mention, not because it is more likely than other projects to succeed, but just because I think the idea is interesting, and it relates to a larger anthropological problem in the advancement of green technology.
The research is in developing methods, using mathematical models, to strategize the process of storing energy in lithium ion batteries, and getting the energy back out again. The press release bills this as a way of charging batteries faster and mentions as well other benefits, but I think there are a number of other battery design implications suggested as well. The idea seems to be to design battery configuration, including cell distribution, size, and the circuitry for controlling charging and use, in a much more efficient way by working with information about the locations of the ions in the battery cells rather than the measurement of electric potential at the battery’s poles.
I’m going to give you two analogies for this. Imagine that your job is to fill a theater of people efficiently by guiding people from the parking lot towards different entrance ways. The only information you have, however, is what you see from the outside, at the doors, where people might be backed up and entering more slowly at one door and moving in more quickly at other doors. Simply sending people towards the doors where the movement of people was smoother would in fact work. But, a competing strategy that also used video cameras set up inside the building would be better. In this competing strategy, you could tell if the ticket takers at a particular station inside were on break, or if the seats in a particular part of the theater were being filled slowly because some people from Iowa, where there are no crowds or lines, had congregated in the middle of the aisle to swap rhubarb pie recipes. These internal local situations will translate into slowness or fastness at the outside doors, but knowing in advance where there will be rapid flow vs. restricted flow will allow you to be smarter about which door you direct people to.
The second analogy is something that actually happened in Minnesota (and probably other places). Years ago the Department of Transportation implemented a system of ramp meters. In Minnesota, a “ramp” is usually a parking lot but we also use the term for the highway entrance or exit. A “meter” is a pair of stop lights, one on each side of the ramp, just before the entrance to the highway. When the meters are “on” drivers wanting to get on the highway form two lines with their cars, and the two stop lights alternately switch, very quickly, from red to green and back to red. That is a signal that the next car in line on that side can go, while everyone else waits.
Metered ramps slow down traffic from certain exits so that the traffic on the main highway line flows smoothly. The original system turned on the meters at a certain time, turned them off at a certain time, and set the rate of metering to a certain pace. These parameters were based on a general understanding of traffic patterns, not on direct measurements of traffic flow. This helped, but it also meant that you could drive up to a highway ramp and sit there waiting for the meter when there was very little traffic, because the setup for the meters was an approximation and did not adjust for the more variable and heterogeneous reality of actual traffic.
Then, recently, the system was changed, so that using various other sources of information (like cameras), the meters are now turned on and off, and the pace of the meters set, based on real data applied to a logical model. Same technology, different methodology, led to greater efficiency.
Lithium ion batteries involve a sheet of anode material and a sheet of cathode material separated by a third sheet. Charging a battery means moving ions form the cathode sheet to the anode sheet where they remain until the battery is used. Using the battery involves the ions going the opposite way, which results in electric potential. (I oversimplify slightly.) Apparently, ion behavior is not uniform a cross the sheets, and knowing the more detailed behavior of the ions would allow more efficient charge and discharge, and possibly even allow smaller batteries in a given application. If the batteries can in fact be charged a lot faster, this would allow for electric cars to exist under certain circumstances where they otherwise would be very difficult to implement. Right now, one of the main objections to all-electric cars is that you can’t just go up to a “gas” station and charge them up like you can put liquid fuel in a tank. The researchers seem to be claiming that if this method works out, you will be able to charge up a battery in much much less time than currently required, bringing electric cars back into the picture for certain uses. Would you be able to fill your electric car up as fast as you can gas up your car? Well, that would be the idea. IF the research pans out. (And the charging station and the car is properly engineered to allow multiple cells to be charged at once, perhaps.)
The reason this is interesting is that it would be, if it works, a change in methods and use rather than raw technology. This is like coming up with a better angle to tip your solar panel to get more of a charge, rather than building more panels or coming up with a new design.
And one of the special reasons I like this idea is because of the (typically right wing) wet blanket we so often see thrown on technology. There is a long list of reasons why solar, wind, or other non-oil based technologies don’t work or can’t work or might work but the market can’t handle it or the cost is to high yada yada yada. This list, or large parts of it, is typically on the tongue of the naysayers, who are always quick to note that this or that technology won’t work for this or that reason, and that if you don’t accept this naysaying, you are not knowledgeable, scientific, or skeptical. Yet, many of those reasons claimed to suggest that something won’t work were never correct, or might have been but are out of date, or are irrelevant, or are true in some way but also apply to alternatives. Like “wind power is too variable” … with the incorrect implication that traditional forms of energy are invariable.
If this new idea works out, which involves mathematical modeling of the details of the position of the ions within the battery cells, it will be an example of technology doing something that everyone knew it could not do. In a few years from now, remember this when you are charging at the station and it takes you less time to “fill” your eCar than the guy across the way who is pumping some sort of smelly liquid into the side of his beat up old Pickup. In the wind and sleet and you are both in a hurry but it takes you only three minutes and you don’t have to leave your eCar to fill-er-up at the link-and-charge.
The information about this research project is here.