Breakthrough Batteries?


The more time you spend talking with smart people about the energy future, the more you hear about the holy grail: great batteries. To that end, a couple of recent developments in BatteryLand are encouraging news. The first battery of interest comes from MIT:

A radically new approach to the design of batteries, developed by researchers at MIT, could provide a lightweight and inexpensive alternative to existing batteries for electric vehicles and the power grid. The technology could even make “refueling” such batteries as quick and easy as pumping gas into a conventional car. The new battery relies on an innovative architecture called a semi-solid flow cell, in which solid particles are suspended in a carrier liquid and pumped through the system. In this design, the battery’s active components — the positive and negative electrodes, or cathodes and anodes — are composed of particles suspended in a liquid electrolyte. These two different suspensions are pumped through systems separated by a filter, such as a thin porous membrane.

The second, courtesy of GeekWire, is from Clarian Labs in Seattle:

Bill Gates and inventors connected to Nathan Myhrvold’s Intellectual Ventures made headlines two years ago with a patent application for an electromagnetic engine.

Now a Seattle-based company, Clarian Labs, says it has developed a compact, electromagnetic hybrid battery  based on a rotary piston that can generate twice as much power as the one proposed by the former Microsoft executives. It runs on carbon-neutral fuels including hydrogen, and could power equipment including robots, electric vehicles and home generators.

Clarian says it has been developing the technology in stealth mode for the the past two years. Its own patent application was made public last week (PDF). The battery was originally developed as a power source for the Department of Defense Humanoid Robot Program.

I have no idea whether either of these batteries will be game-changers, but it is hard to imagine that with so many smart and motivated people working on the battery problem, we won’t make huge progress in the long run.

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  1. PeterScott says:

    The second is NOT a battery!

    It is an internal combustion engine, that explodes fuel/air mix to create motion and generate electricity. You put in fuel and air and get out electricity/exhaust gases.

    It is no more a battery than a Honda Generator is a battery.

    It is simply a more compact packaging of Internal Combustion Engine generator.

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    • James says:

      Not only is it just a little IC engine, it’s a little Wankel rotary. As someone commented elsewhere, somewhere there’s a tiny Mazda up on blocks with the engine missing.

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  2. Eric M. Jones says:


    There have been dozens of similar announcements in the last decade.

    The odds are against this one too. But let’s hope….

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  3. Speed says:

    PeterScott is right.

    It’s interesting that the word “battery” does not appear anywhere in the patent application however the URL for the patent PDF includes the words rotary_piston_generator. Where did the idea that this is a battery come from?

    And finally, it is a long way from the lab to volume production of an economical, reliable product. Further still for one employing radical new technology. How long did it take to get the LCD from the lab to an affordable flat screen monitor?

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  4. Adrian Meli says:

    Awesome. Hadn’t seen the MIT battery discussed before, but it seems with so many people attacking the issue we should have some good solutions soon. That said, people have thought that this was coming for years…

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  5. Joe says:

    Batteries are NOT a source of energy. Hydrogen is NOT a source of energy. They are both ways to store energy. You still need to generate the energy used to charge the batteries or make the Hydrogen. Energy might come from coal, solar, natural gas, nuclear, wind, whatever.

    The idea that Hydrogen is a carbon-neutral fuel source shows that whoever wrote the press release knows more about buzz words than the science behind the process.

    These ideas might change the way energy is stored and carried around in cars. They won’t magically reduce our reliance on fossil fuels.

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    • crquack says:

      How is hydrogen different from coal, wind, natural gas and “whatever”? They are just different ways of “storing” energy by your very definition. All of these store solar energy in one form or another.

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      • joe says:

        Hydrogen is different because it can’t be found in nature in any usable quantity. You can find things like coal, wind, natural gas, and solar and mine, extract, or harvest them. You can’t go out and find much hydrogen. You have to make it from something else using energy.

        90% of hydrogen today is generated from fossil fuels. A small amount is generated by hydrolysis (splitting water). That takes energy, which usually comes from burning fossil fuels.

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      • joe says:

        electrolysis, not hydrolysis. sorry.

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      • Joerge says:

        Isn’t Hydroden the most abundant element in the universe?

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      • Mike MacDonald says:

        Hydrogen is indeed the most abundant element in the universe – and that’s where elemental hydrogen resides. The hydrogen on Earth is locked up in molecules (e.g. water) that need to be broken apart using energy so that the “fuel” is available. And if you’re using water as the source, the energy required to break up the molecule is the same as the energy released when forming the molecule during combustion, so it’s not “carbon neutral”, it’s “energy neutral”.

        Hydrogen is also the simplest and lightest element – release some into the atmosphere and it will eventually escape to space. As I said, that’s where Hydrogen resides, mostly in stars. And in the dreams of the alternative energy set.

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      • Assumo says:

        @ Mike –
        Can’t hydrogen ions be created by putting acids through neutralizing chemical reactions? Then you wouldn’t need electricity to split the molecules. I have trouble concieving of a way to do this on a large scale, but environmental acids are abundant. I’m only asking because you seem to have good insight.

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      • James says:

        Sure, if you think on timescales of 100 million years or so, then coal, oil, and natural gas are just stored solar energy. On a human timescale, or even a human civilization one, they are sources of energy: we dig them up and use the energy that took millions of years to capture from the sun.

        The problem with hydrogen (well, besides the fact that it’s pretty difficult to store & transport in the quantities needed for transportation) is that there’s no way to get already-made hydrogen. There are no hydrogen wells or mines; we have to make it, either by cracking petroleum or natural gas (and it’s much more efficient to use those directly), or to split it out of water by electrolysis, another inefficient process.

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    • James says:

      Batteries are the key to using electricity where at the moment only fosile fules are cost affective (cars etc).
      With high performace low cost batteries will come the ability to store enery gathered from renewable sources.
      At he moment the batteries are the expensive part of going green so there for are the constraint to moving away from fosile fuels.

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  6. caleb b says:

    Wouldn’t it be great if all cars could run on gasoline, natural gas, or plug-in electricity?

    If gasoline became expensive, people would buy more natural gas, or charge their cars at night. The competition between the three could help keep costs down for the average joe.

    Yes, yes, we need viable bio-fuel blah, blah, helping environment, blah blah. We’re working on it, but in the mean time, how about combining a few technologies we already have?

    To dream a little dream….

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  7. Ricardo says:

    But I love this quote, which could have been pulled right out of an Asimov novel:

    “The battery was originally developed as a power source for the Department of Defense Humanoid Robot Program.”

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  8. Ben D says:

    You guys forget, for some reason Dubner is in love with Nathan Myhrvold.

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    • bob says:

      What’s not to love?

      He generates money while actually producing nothing. He simply controls access to an infinite good. It must be some sort of economist fantasy.

      Using the government to guarantee monopolies on ideas to “earn” profit? In this scenario, the glassmaker legislated the broken windows. And he doesn’t even have to fix them.

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