Sunday, June 29, 2008

battery spark

So, graspingly desperate presidential hopeful John McCain wants the federal government to pony up a three hundred million dollar reward to be given to the first person who successfully develops a practical, powerful electrical storage battery for automotive propulsion and other energy needs that will pull the United States out of the energy dependence hole it has further dug itself into, despite the stern warning given to us in the Seventies about how tenuous our gasoline-driven economy actually was.

Apparently, Mr. McCain thinks that nobody is already working on this approach, and doesn't fully understand that achieving it would make that three hundred million pocket change in comparison to the profits that could be reaped from the development itself. Many people are familiar with new, low-production or technology-demonstration vehicles like the Tesla or the Chevrolet Volt, and get the false impression that these kind of vehicles are going to be the magic bullet that gets the country off gasoline in a brief period of time, avoiding the difficulties being predicted by Peak Oil supporters and making themselves evident in the form of rapid inflation of energy prices. However, these vehicles are extremely expensive to produce and in the case of the Tesla are almost entirely made of batteries and not very practical, and they are very labor-intensive to build and maintain.

The simple scientific reason the magic battery hasn't been developed is that there is a finite (and relatively small) amount of energy that can be produced or stored by chemical reactions. You want power, you have to have big, heavy, expensive batteries. We are already starting up the "diminishing returns" part of the curve on battery technology and one way or the other, the power that goes into a rechargeable battery comes from somewhere else, a lot of that energy is lost in the transfer from energy production facility to storage facility, and inefficiency equals expense.

Science isn't magic, the periodic table is the periodic table, and physics is physics. Anybody expecting battery technology to attain the kind of goals desired in terms of energy independence and environmental benevolence is going to be sorely disappointed.


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