Week of June 22

This weeks roundup will be short, not because nothing happened, but because nothing epochal happened, and because my time was taken up by the production of two other articles.

I received a number of news items relating to electrical storage in the power grid including an announcement that a123, a manufacturer of large format lithium ion batteries was going to attempt to sell its products for grid scale storage. Considering the fact that all large format lithium ion batteries are expected to be quite costly per joule of storage, and that really massive capacities are required, particularly with intermittent renewable sources, I find this announcement puzzling.

In truth, batteries are already used in electrical utilities, most commonly, enormous banks of cheap lead acid batteries, and, much less commonly, redox flow vanadium salt batteries which permit infinite cycling, a most desirable attribute in a battery required to exhibit absolute reliability. But exotic high output batteries of the sort intended for electric automobiles seem particularly ill suited for utility power plants.

Not that something better than the current art isn't needed. A good, cheap, ultra-high capacity form of electrical storage would be immensely beneficial to both producers and consumers of electrical energy, and would support much more reliable and efficient delivery of electrical current regardless of the source. The problem is that there is no technology on the horizon that is likely to make good this particular deficit.

As I have indicated elsewhere in this site, the easiest though not the cheapest or most efficient way to store vast amounts of potential energy in an electrical grid is to use electricity to run electrolysers in order to split water into oxygen and hydrogen. The hydrogen can be stored in tanks and then consumed in hydrogen burning turbines or fuel cells so as to generate electricity when it is needed. Most of electrical energy to be stored will be lost in the process through various means, but what remains can be infinitely vast—in other words, the process is highly scalable. Charging up batteries is not highly scalable, at least not with any current battery chemistry.

Other means exist for storing energy within a large transmission system as well. One can compress air and use that to drive turbine generators subsequently. One can also pump water into huge reservoirs and then drain reservoirs and utilize the falling water to operate hydroelectric turbines. Or one can store mechanical energy in essentially frictionless flywheels spinning on magnetic bearings in a hard vacuum.

All these storage techniques unfortunately are very expensive, and only the first, known as pumped hydro, scales upward very well.

It is possible to store electrical energy in superconducting rings where by virtue of the zero resistance of the superconductor itself, the electrons circle endlessly through the ring until energy is tapped through inductive coupling. Superconducting rings have been used to provide ride through power for dealing with momentary voltage sags, but unfortunately no one has been able to scale up the technology to store really large values of energy.

My guess is that no ready solution is in sight save for redundant power generators driven by heat engines, but in an era of intensified investigations into new energy technology perhaps some other means might be developed.

Andy Grove Plugs Electric Cars

By now most of us have heard that Andy Grove, ex-chairman of Intel, is advocating a transition to plug-in hybrids and all electric vehicles. According to Grove, 71, we're at a "strategic inflection point" comparable to that which occurred in the seventies at the dawn of the personal computing era.

Grove suggests that the utilities should provide electricity for recharging electric car batteries gratis for a period of time in order to speed adoption. He also favors a prominent role for government in promoting electric cars by putting in place various incentives.

I think that it's possible though not necessarily probable that all electric cars or deep plug-in hybrids may become main stream. If gasoline prices rise to ten dollars, which could happen in as little as five years, the automobiles of today could become an insupportable expense for many motorists.

But are such speculations really what are fueling Grove's advocacy? I think not. I think he sees a major role for Intel in the new regime. Modern designs of electric cars and plug-in hybrids require complex power management systems which in turn require microchips. This could be a potentially enormous new market for Intel and one where high chip prices could probably be maintained given the high selling price of the finished product. I'm sure Grove sees the semiconductor industry eventually gobbling up the auto industry and the nerds replacing the gear heads and grease monkeys. And who knows? Maybe he's right.

electric cars

I do not understand the love affair for the electric car. I think the biggest improvement they could make to the car is a place to carry 2 golf bags. I live in Lenexa Ks. I drive 20 miles to work 18 of that is on the interstate. So a 20 to 40 MPH top speed is not appealing to me. Just going out to breakfast I drive on roads the speed limit is 45 MPH. What percentage of the people would really buy one & use it. even if they had a battery that you could dive the speed limit, & dive 100 to 150 miles, what would you do while you are waiting the 3.5 hours for the battery to recharge.
A rechargeable hybrid. makes a little more séance, but there is still one problem, most of my driving is highway at 65 to 75 MPH. The gas engine will be running most of the time, so I don't think I will save much on gas.
I think a electric car that is feasible is 50 years out, & then it will be a fuel cell that uses a liquid fuel & not hydrogen.
Jim Middlesworth