Many global problems could be solved by better power storage, so its development should be a public effort on a par with finding ways to fight diseases
(Image: Thomas Trutschel/Getty)
LIVING off-grid has become the dream for some in the developed world, to whom self-sufficiency appeals more than the seemingly dirty and volatile business of industrial power generation, often using fossil fuels.
For millions in the developing world, however, it is the off-grid life that is dirty and uncertain. Some 1.3 billion people still live without electricity, mostly in Africa and Asia. Many more have patchy supplies, and when lighting or power is unreliable, health, education and productivity suffer.
For once, there is a common solution to the ills of both rich and poor: a better battery. Connect cheap, efficient and enduring rechargeable batteries to solar panels (or diesel engines), and you can provide electricity even where the wires don’t reach. And batteries capable of storing huge amounts of power would help renewable sources meet more of the world’s energy demands.
So you might think battery development would be a public effort on a par with fighting antibiotic resistance or global diseases. You would be wrong. The race to build better batteries is largely being run in unconnected private and public research labs.
Today’s best battery technology – lithium-ion – was a fortunate by-product of the now-defunct cassette tape industry. But its successor may emerge in a more considered fashion. We are moving beyond simply cooking up chemicals in the hope that some recipe will happen to work, to a more systematic, data-driven approach (see ““).
A note of caution is merited. At the dawn of the 1990s, chemists hoped they might experiment their way tothat worked at room temperatures – and to a revolution in power transmission. They failed.
Superconductors are valuable; batteries are vital. Without a breakthrough in storage, progress around the world may grind to a halt. Let’s hope the search doesn’t run out of juice.
This article appeared in print under the headline “Total recharge”
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