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Archive for February, 2011


Posted by wastedenergy on February 27, 2011

Are you a math geek? Like solving problems? Needed a quick jolt to knock you into action? This one’s for you.

Say hello to my little friend: he’s gonna pop a cap in you. An ultracap, that is. Never heard of him? You have now.

First, a brief explanation of the concept: an ultracapacitor is an energy storage technology that has been around for a couple of decades, but whose potential has only begun to be realized, let alone exploited. It stores electrical energy, but the idea is very different from a conventional battery: rather than storing the charge as chemical potential energy, charge is captured as it sits along a surface area, usually carbon nanotubes or some other nanomaterial. Since an electron occupies essentially no volume, it is able to lie flat along the surface, and so the greater the interior surface area of the ultracapacitor cell, the more charge is able to be stored. Because the exploitable area is based on two dimensions but is stored inside a body built in three dimensions, there is no theoretical limit to the amount of charge that can be stored in a cell of a given volume; the only limit is a practical one, related to how much accessible surface area we can create using the materials available to us and the amount of energy available to be stored in this way.

OK, so what’s the big deal?

The big deal is that while we were all asleep at the wheel of our electric cars thinking that lithium-ion batteries were the end-all-be-all for electric energy storage and that a concept over two hundred years old (the voltaic pile, or battery) was all we had in our arsenal for the fast-charging and energy-dense storage devices we need to make clean energy sources like solar power viable at the scales and in the applications where we really need them, those whiz kids over at Argonne National Laboratory were busy working with extraterrestrial intelligence to fangle something truly new and exciting.

Currently, ultracapacitors using nanocarbon materials are already in use for fast-charging hybrid and electric buses and a few other applications. But their potential extends far beyond current usage. As usual, better manufacturing techniques, improved technological concepts and materials, and economies of scale will bring down the cost and improve the performance of these devices. I’m talking about fast-charging electric vehicles of all types, capable of storing more than a few dozen miles’ worth of charge. Not only that, but we can use them to store energy from home-scale solar energy production systems as well as the electric grid, to save up energy for when our shining star can’t quite reach us. Skeptics will say the technology isn’t ready yet, but I say it’s just a matter of time – and a little effort. Hey, politicos: instead of slashing energy research budgets like the blind leading the blind, why don’t you think about cutting off the arms of the armed forces instead, and doubling, tripling, or even sextupling the budget for our national labs so they can get this stuff off the bench and onto the market where we need it?

Of course, it won’t solve everything: we still need to conserve our natural resources and ecosystems properly and with respect to the needs of future generations, and we still need to actually develop and build out the clean energy sources we’ll use to charge these things up in the first place. But put all the pieces together, and you begin to see that it can be done. We have the technology, and we can build it.

Think you’ve seen it all? I got news for you: you ain’t seen nothin’ yet.

I recall, lightning struck itself…

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