Thursday, December 16, 2010

Secretary Chu On Lithium Ion?

Source: NY Times
Like most public officials,  DOE Secretary Chu can be both praised and criticized for the choices he has made to advance the mission of the agency he leads.   My initial worry with Chu was that maybe he didn't prioritize energy storage enough  in his overall plan so that research funding was being spread too thinly across various renewable energy technologies.  I also worried that the DOE was a bit too cozy with campaign donors to the Obama administration, for example, giving enormous funding to electric car makers Fisker and Tesla....when what was actually needed more urgently were batteries to propel such vehicles.

The more I get to know Chu via his numerous public presentations, the more I come to the conclusion that he's doing a pretty good job.  In fact, I find it hard to believe we have ever had a former DOE head that has even 50% of the efficacy of Chu.   Everyone talks about how smart he is as a scientist. But I think lately, he seems to be paying more attention to economic viability.   

Case in point.  Last week in Cancun, Mexico at the UN Climate Change Conference,  Chu gave a very interesting presentation.  Notable is the discussion starting around 25:00 where Chu begins to compare liquid fuels to lithium ion batteries.   He then goes on to recognize that lithium ion has a very long way to go to be viable for consumer adoption in cars.  According to John Petersen, he actually paints lithium ion as a dead end.  Although I don't quite go so far based on what he presented. But, of course, I personally have a considerable reservations about it based purely on supply. 

It seems to me that Chu is paying most of his attention to research and appears to have put together a team that is achieving demonstrable progress.   Now, of course, not everything DOE funds is going to come to fruition.  But really, all we need are a few key ones to succeed with energy storage being chief among them.   

You may say, well, if EEStor produces finally (after torturing everyone with a long announcement delay chosen solely by Dick Weir and no one else) then doesn't that mean DOE is wasting a lot of funding on batteries?   I don't really think that's the right question. What I'm curious about is if EEStor produced, what would Chu's DOE do in response?    I think he's a guy that would use his resources to make the most of it.    So, I am not skeptical of Chu. Instead, I'm interested to see where he could take us. 

My only other concern is whether or not our attempts to cooperate with foreign governments such as China on the level of research is actually in our best interest as a country.  We always tend to come up short on trade negotiation.  I think that one issue is one that separates the climate change crowd from the energy independence crowd in the USA.   To the EI group, the CC group appear alarmist and economically wreck-less. To the CC group, the EI group are insufficiently alarmed and possibly nihilistic.   But, at least both groups can agree that we need to get rid of fossil fuels for transportation and power generation.  

Credit: thanks to the anonymous emailer who brought Petersen's article to my attention.  

PS: My view is if we have to depend on lead acid as Petersen suggests, let's call everything off.  You know, throw in the towel and have a end of the world party.

1 comment:

windbourne said...

Prof. Chu is greatly unappreciated. Long before we deal with transportable energy storage, we need an industry that can absorb it. Otherwise, it will just get sold to China which is MUCH worse than OPEC.
Prof. Chu has been pushing to get American electric car companies going. Sadly, W/Obama REALLY messed up on the auto (and bank) bailouts. We SHOULD have broken up GM and Chrysler in at least 3 and 2 companies. The reason why these automakers are messes is because they have accountants in charge. Heck, look at the volt. Truly a POS. I would buy nissan before buying a volt.
But once we have multiple car companies going, then it makes it easier to change over from batteries to ultra-caps. In the mean time, we have THREE industries BEGGING for CHEAP SAFE ULTRA-CAPS. The first is the ISS, as well as sats, space vehicles. We currently take batteries up there. These have limited lifetimes The ISS's sulfer batteries are one of the longest lasting at 30K charges. BUT, the million plus charges of the caps would mean one trip to the ISS with these and it would be in orbit for the next 100 years.
Then you have the DOD. They are dying (literally) to get energy (mostly diesel) into Afghanistan to support the troops. That is not just equipment, but also camp support. Being able to provide loads of energy in ultra-caps would mean lasers and small rail-guns will be possible. We are already testing 32 MW railguns which can shoot 25 lb bullets 100 miles. However, the ability to shoot a regular bullet at 1-2 miles is all that is needed. That means kw of power. And that is doable, EXCECPT that we do not have cheap dense energy storage. THis would work. Interestingly, combining this with beaming of power would provide some very interesting features.
Then of course, for the new DDX, they are looking at lasers and railguns for armament's. Having ultra-caps would solve a lot of issues. Heck, we would likely produce a new tank (serial hybrids) with a new class of armaments on it as well. Again the ability to drive have a small 50 caliber rail gun, combined with a much larger railgun, all of which can fire at automatic weapon speeds would be useful today (and in what will likely be another war around 10-15 years from now).
Finally, small to medium storage (.5MW to 10 MW) size devices for use around the nation would be useful for these. Imagine if they were built for use ever sq mile. Instead of a grid providing all over a metro, the grid would provide power to these storage devices at high voltage. Then the local area would not just step down, but provide power for when energy is out. IOW, it smooths the power supply/demand. If done correct, we would restructure how our monopolies are done.