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.