Monday, January 3, 2011

Energy Storage: An Old Story for a New Year

Imagine for a second that instead of being the run of the mill shlub that you are today, you had actually quite an interesting life which of course often means you would have had to of had an interesting beginning.   Computers are interesting so let's say you were around when some of the interesting innovations in computers were literally coming online.  One such interesting time would have been in the 1950s & 1960s when, for example, there was a need to invent several technologies to make distributed RADAR such as SAGE possible.

Specifically, the purpose of SAGE was to prevent the need for aircraft to fly 24x7 to defend US air space from Russian bombers.  To achieve this, radar sites had to be linked together over a network (the technology of which didn't exist) to a computer which could process it in real time (again, something that didn't exist) so that a video display (not this either) could present immediate access to needed airspace information allowing US jets to scramble, when needed, to intercept inbound bombers.    Again, this is your imaginary other life, so put yourself in that situation and imagine what piece of it you would have enjoyed being a part of?  One suggestion for you would be the problem of Core Memory, the technological forerunner to what we today affectionately label RAM.  For SAGE, the need for this CM drew from the slow computing speeds available at the time only from electrostatic storage tubes.

As a member of the SAGE team, you would be looking for a magnetic material whose magnetization could be altered by electric field strength.  Your leader would have been Jay Forrester, who is credited with inventing Core Memory.  Now, if you wanted to interrupt me here to point out that you don't much care for material science and instead would have liked to be a program manager of this overarching program which was the Whirlwind project, then I would retort you may in fact wish to have been Forrester himself.  Not only did he invent a precurser to RAM but he also became a respected management theorist of what was called System Dynamics.   Certainly that would be an interesting life indeed.

But supposing you were to drill into the problem of core memory a little, you might have stumbled upon an interesting bit of work related to the need for a square B-H hysteresis that could launch you into several interesting directions.  Suppose for a second that your assignment in particular was to investigate a ferrimagnetic oxospinel for its ability to have a square B-H hysteresis loop.   Now this would have been a tricky assignment indeed.

You see at the time, all of the experts were certain this was impossible.  Impossible, sure, but also needed greatly.  If it were you, which one would have won out: impossible or needed?  Well, if your name is John B. Goodenough, practical necessity would have prevailed even if you were a bit humble about it:

"We were lucky. We lucked out and developed the square hysteresis loop in 
polycrystalline ceramic which all the experts said was impossible to do."  
                                  -John B. Goodenough  Dec 2010 (Interview with this blogger)

Accomplishing what others insist is impossible would have been quite a feather in someone's cap in those days.  For Goodenough, it paved the way for a considerably bright future which was recently crowned by the receipt of The Fermi Award which is a Presidential award that is one of the oldest and most prestigious awards bestowed by the US Government for a scientist's lifetime achievement.   So what did all of that early attention to magnetic data recording lead Dr. Goodenough to accomplish?  From the Dept of Energy Biography:  "Most notably his development of cathode materials for Li rechargeable batteries laid the foundation for the portable electronics revolution beginning with cell phones and lap-top computers, and has enabled a new generation of plug-in hybrid and all-electric vehicles currently being commercialized around the world.From Wikipedia: "he is widely credited for the identification and development of the Li-ion rechargeable battery..."  I suppose becoming the Father of Lithium Ion technology wouldn't be such a bad gig if you can get it, no? What could be better than that?  Stay tuned.

Sec. Chu & JB Goodenough
According to his bio, it was the interdisciplinary teamwork on the magnetic memory that lead him to develop key concepts related to the Jahn-Teller distortion and the Goodenough-Kanamori rules for the sign of magnetic superexchange in materials.  Strange how one's earliest work can have a mark on the person throughout their career.  Conventional naysaying has it that the work from 50 years ago has little or no significance to the technological movements of our own day yet here is someone, Goodenough, to be a quite a counter example.

At his January 2010 Fermi award ceremony, Goodenough waxed philosophical:

I was fortunate to find my scientific voice at the MIT Lincoln Laboratory where I helped to develop the ferrimagnetic spinels—ceramics developed in Europe during World War II—that enabled the first random-access memory for the digital computer. But unlike the distinguished physicists behind me, the physicists all thought that I was a chemist because I had used the language of Linus Pauling, the chemists considered me to be a physicist because I was interested in the magnetic and electronic properties of solids, and the engineers wonder what I am doing in an Engineering School.
In case his allusions to what helped Goodenough develop his creativity, he concludes with very clear words of wisdom:

This brief tour of my personal history illustrates, I hope, how essential are the interactions between basic science and technology and between different scientific disciplines if we are to develop transformational technologies, technologies that are sustainable and broadly available.
Of course, in contrast, maybe the folks in the scientific world who stay heads down immersed completely in their tiny area of focus have it right too?   Still, it is interesting to see a notable inventor and scientist of Goodenough's accomplished background as a voice for exposure to multiple scientific disciplines to bring us transformational technology.   Data storage and Energy storage don't seem so far apart do they?

One person who probably has an interesting answer to that question is one of Goodenough's colleagues on the hysteresis loop problem whose solution lead to RAM all those years ago...and later to breakthroughs in batteries.  Unlike Goodenough, this colleague later departed academia for Sillicon Valley and focused on the emerging field of integrated circuits with a special fondness for magnetic recording, a career that prepared him to identify his own brilliant insights into energy storage, this time with capacitors.  That's right, if you had played my game & agreed with me that the BH Hysteresis loop problem was an interesting starting point for a theoretical career, you could have become a Goodenough or better,  a Carl W. Nelson.   EEStor's Nelson came to occupy a position originally held by Don Wickham that consisted of helping formulate chemical processes whose trial & error lead to a material with the required properties.

Scratching your head yet?  Perhaps you don't know the history of energy storage as well as you think you do.  Might want to take another look at the early days of computers, when there were fewer sub-disciplines around...



Clinton said...
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Clinton said...

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