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The risk of better batteries

14 June 2012

For decades now, researchers have been trying to find the perfect battery to power our ever increasing demand for portable electrical power.

Although they were the backbone of portable electronics when I was a kid, the humble carbon-zinc primary cells have all but disappeared as a practical source of power for most gadgets and appliances these days.

Likewise, the earliest form of rechargeable battery, nickel-cadmium cells, once commonly sold under the brand-name DEAC, are no longer fashionable -- due to their relatively low energy densities, tendency to develop "voltage depression" and the toxicity of their component elements.

Today of course, things are a whole lot different.

Now we have lithium-based battery technology that offers massively higher energy densities, low internal resistance to power high-current devices, and surprisingly low prices.

It's primarily thanks to this lithium battery technology that we're now enjoying a level of portability that would have been unimaginable just a few decades ago.

I recall that the first "portable" PC didn't even have batteries. The Osborne came in a sewing-machine-style case and although it was "luggable", it still required a source of mains power to run.

Even the first "portable" PCs with flat-panel plasma-based displays didn't offer a battery-power option. In fact, it wasn't until the LCD came of age that we saw the arrival of mains-free computing beyond a novelty level.

Those first machines used NiCd, and later NiMH batteries to deliver what was usually a pretty mediocre level of processing power for little more than an hour on a charge.

About the same the mobile phone started to make its presence felt.

My first Motorola "beige brick" had a NiCd battery pack that would last about a day on a full charge. Remember that this phone didn't have a fancy display (just some 7-segment LEDs), a powerful CPU, WiFi or any of the other power-hungry features we've come to depend on in more contemporary mobiles. Despite this paucity of power and performance, it still consumed its big, heavy battery's charge in under 24 hours.

Of course right now there are probably a bunch of people taping away on their smartphones, eager to inform me that their new Android-phone or iPhone still only delivers a day on a full charge and say "so what's changed?"

It's clear that although battery technology has advanced in leaps and bounds, the demand for portable power has matched those advances very closely.

So what would happen if our battery technology actually took a quantum leap forward and, almost overnight, we gained an order of magnitude more energy density from our rechargeables?

Imagine a smartphone that would run for nearly 2 weeks on a charge.

Imagine a tablet computer that would run for a week when away from the wall-socket.

How about a car that would allow you to travel the length of the country after a single visit to the recharging connector.

Sounds kind of utopian doesn't it?

Unfortunately -- I don't know that we'll ever be allowed to use that kind of battery, even when it is developed.

Why not?

Well for reasons of safety.

We've already seen just how dangerous today's lithium batteries can be when provoked or abused -- imagine that level of rapid energy release if multiplied by a factor of 10 or more.

Instead of burning laptops and mobile phones we'd have some potentially very explosive devices.

I can't imagine any airline in the world allowing people to carry onboard what could effectively become a powerful hand-grenade in the form of a mobile phone with a high-capacity battery.

Likewise, who would want to drive around in an EV that, in the case of an accident, could produce an explosion of energy release that would almost certainly kill anyone within a 15m radius?

We all know that there's more energy in 4 litres of petrol than in a stick of dynamite -- but we also know that even in the case of a severe crash, the chances of all the energy in a car's tank being released at once is zero. To get an explosion from petrol requires a very precise mixture of fuel vapour and air -- something that just can't be achieved in any survivable crash scenario.

A high energy-density battery however, would simply require the application of a short-circuit -- either externally or internally.

If we boost the energy density of our batteries by a factor of 10, we end up with items which have the explosive capabilities of a chunk of C4 -- but, unlike C4, these batteries would have the potential to self-ignite without warning.

Of course numerous safety mechanisms would be introduced to try and prevent such batteries from exploding due to abuse or accident - but the reality is that when you store a huge amount of energy in a very small volume -- the unplanned release of that energy is always going to be a very risky affair.

So, as I've suggested for a long time -- the future of EVs and many other modern hi-tech devices is not in making better batteries -- it's in reducing the energy requirements.

Instead of pushing a tonne and a half of steel around the streets, it's time we revisited the whole concept of personal transport and realised that such vehicles need to be as light and minimalist as possible -- so as to reduce the energy required to operate them.

Studies indicate that the average 5-seat family car spends a great deal of its time simply carrying one occupant (the driver). That's right, most of the time it is wasting huge amounts of energy simply moving a near-empty steel box around.

Of course since the government effectively made motorcycles unaffordable (by way of horrendous licensing fees), the only practical alternative is the truly personal transport vehicle -- the "one-person plus shopping" EV which is small, lightweight and ultra efficient.

If NZ had its head screwed on, we'd already be promoting this as an option to dragging two tonnes of SUV to and from work every work-day.

Such a move would create new jobs for Kiwis, reduce our demand for fossil fuel imports, reduce the need to spend ever-increasing amounts on our commuter roading infrastructure, take the pressure off urban parking, increase road safety and address the issues associated with vehicular emissions and their effects on the environment.

Perhaps now, during these times of austerity, as the world faces one of its largest financial crises since the great depression, we could create a 21st century equivalent of those work schemes that saw the plantation of NZ's great exotic forest and the building of many of our key pieces of infrastructure many decades ago.

NZ ought to show the world that it deserves the self-appointed title of "clean and green" by taking the bold step of leaping into the EV world and showing that, at least one level it is already a viable option to burning ex-dinosaurs.

Will it happen?

Cue Tui's ad.

Should it happen?

You tell me.

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