Information Age Education Blog

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7 minutes reading time (1351 words)

Progress in Developing Better Rechargeable Batteries

I find articles about research and development endlessly interesting. Recently I read an article about research on developing a new rechargeable battery to power electronic products and vehicles (Kelion, 4/17/2013).

The Kelion article reports on progress in making batteries that will have the energy storage capacity of current batteries, but will be only 1/10 the size. If the new batteries are made the same size as current batteries, they can hold ten times the energy. The new batteries also can be recharged much faster than conventional rechargeable batteries. This research and development work is being done by a research team at the University of Illinois. The article indicates that the research team expects to have the technology ready to try out by the end of 2013.

Wow! Suppose that the project comes to fruition, producing a safer, better, and perhaps cheaper replacement for conventional rechargeable batteries. That indeed would be a game changer. Imagine a cell phone whose battery lasts ten times as long as the battery in a current cell phone, and that can be recharged in less than a minute.

However, a cautionary note. Relatively few breakthrough inventions ever fulfill their imagined potentials, and it generally takes five to ten years or more for the successful products to come into widespread use (Moursund, 9/15/2012 and 12/26/2013).

Here is an example of current battery research. Quoting from The Forever Battery (Ashley, May 2013):

Nanotube-based batteries now under development could make rechargeable batteries last 20 times longer. Lithium-ion batteries often break down because the anodes, or positive electrodes, degrade from repeated expansion and contraction as charge-carrying lithium ions move around. A team of researchers at Stanford University has created anodes made of silicon nanotubes surrounded by permeable silicon oxide shells. The strong outer shells keep the inner nanotubes from expanding too much and failing as lithium ions pass in and out. Whereas today’s lithium-ion batteries typically withstand between 300 and 500 charge-and-discharge cycles, the nanotube versions can cycle more than 6,000 times while retaining more than 85 percent of their initial capacity. 

Thoughts, Speculations, and Questions

Part of the enjoyment I get from reading articles about the forefront of research and development is browsing though my mind to find ideas that relate to what I have read. Here are some examples from the Kelion article.

1. Who is paying for the research? Likely it is receiving federal and university funding, along with many long hours of work coming out of the hides of the researchers. If the project is successful, people in the U.S. and the rest of the world will benefit, and the university and the researchers will receive very large financial rewards.

2. Likely the lead researchers would have been classified as talented and gifted while they were in elementary and secondary school. What were their home and school environments like in terms of contributing to the researchers’ cognitive development, drive, and persistence? I find it interesting to speculate on the possible return on investment of investing more money in the education of talented and gifted students. Suppose, for example, we could select 100 students who are talented and gifted in the science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) areas and invest an extra $30,000 ($2,500 a year for 12 years) in the precollege education of each student. The cost would be $3 million. Suppose that this investment significantly helped one of the students to become a STEM “super star.” Is it worth $3 million to produce such a super star? I believe that would be a very good investment of our country’s resources. Currently, support for talented and gifted students varies considerably from state to state, and is very low or non-existent in some states. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gifted_education and http://www.nagc.org/stateofthestatesreport.aspx.

3. What did I know about how rechargeable batteries work? Hmm—not much until I read this article. The article contains a nice overview of how rechargeable batteries work. I now know quite a bit more than I did before. For additional information see http://www.azom.com/article.aspx?ArticleID=7962 and http://www.atp.nist.gov/eao/wp05-01/chapt2.htm. The second article, updated in 2007, provides an excellent historical perspective. Quoting from that article:

United States scientists have long spearheaded research and development in various battery chemistries, and U.S. battery manufacturers have maintained dominant positions in the primary battery market. North American researchers provided many of the critical technology breakthroughs needed to establish Li-ion [lithium-ion] battery feasibility. Yet today, the dominant secondary (rechargeable) battery manufacturers are abroad, and U.S. manufacturers appear only in niche markets and boutique applications.

4. What can I learn from the Web by reading other articles about research and development on improving rechargeable batteries? I spent quite a bit of time browsing, skimming, and doing more serious reading. Some of the articles focused on problems such as the batteries on the Boeing 787 Dreamliner airplane that caught on fire (see http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-21710577), laptop computer batteries that have overheated (see http://www.howstuffworks.com/dell-battery-fire.htm), and so on.

There are a number of research centers around the world that are working on improving rechargeable batteries. Over the years, progress has occurred. For example, quoting from Pritchard (9/10/2011):

A new polymer jelly could be the next big step forward for lithium batteries.

The jelly replaces the volatile and hazardous liquid electrolyte currently used in most lithium batteries.

The Leeds-based researchers are promising that their jelly batteries are as safe as polymer batteries, perform like liquid-filled batteries, but are 10 to 20% the price of either.

When I read this article, I wondered how the project is faring a year and a half later. My Web search led to the information that the technology has been licensed to an American company, Polystor Energy Corporation, which is conducting commercial trials. I then spent about an hour searching for information about progress being made in bringing this technology to market. Interestingly, I was not able to find any useful newer information.

Final Remarks

Media outlets jump on new news. They are not very good at long-term follow up on the news they publish. The Web makes it much easier for writers and readers to do long-term follow up.

The Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts includes a major focus on students learning to read across the curriculum. See http://www.corestandards.org/ELA-Literacy. In reading the Kelion article and doing follow-up reading, I encountered articles about: history of rechargeable batteries; over-heating and/or fires from batteries in laptop computers and in the Boeing 787 Dreamliner airplane; United States and other countries’ production of batteries; and articles about Talented and Gifted education. In my mind, that was an example of doing reading across the curriculum.

What You Can Do

In the “good old days,” many homes and essentially all schools had a set of encyclopedias. Children and adults often used this resource to quickly find information.

Now, we have the Web, which includes the Wikipedia and many other sources of information. Help the students and others that you interact with develop skill in the “look it up on the Web” approach to learning and problem solving as a routine part of their everyday lives.

References

Ashley, S. (May 2013). The forever battery. Scientific American.

Kelion, L. (4/17/2013). Super-powered battery breakthrough claimed by US team. BBC News. Retrieved 4/19/2013 from http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/technology-22191650.

Moursund D. (12/26/2012). Predictions about the future of computer technology. IAE Blog. Retrieved 4/19/2013 from http://i-a-e.org/iae-blog/predictions-about-the-future-of-computer-technology.html.

Moursund, D. (9/15/2012). The pace of technological change. IAE Blog. Retrieved 4/20/2013 from http://i-a-e.org/iae-blog/the-pace-of-technological-change.html

Pritchard, H. (9/10/2011). Jelly batteries: Safer, cheaper, smaller, more powerful. BBC News. Retrieved 4/20/2013 from http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-14852073.

Suggested Readings from IAE and Other Publications

You can use Google to search all of the IAE publications. Click here to begin. Then click in the IAE Search box that is provided, insert your search terms, and click on the Search button.

Click here to search the entire collection of IAE Blog entries.

Here are some examples of publications that might interest you.

40th anniversary of the cell phone. See http://i-a-e.org/iae-blog/40th-anniversary-of-the-cell-phone.html.

Computer technology is only one of many technologies. See http://i-a-e.org/iae-blog/computer-technology-is-only-one-of-many-technologies.html.

Computerization of jobs. See http://i-a-e.org/iae-blog/computerization-of-jobs.html

Continuing innovation in information technology. See http://i-a-e.org/iae-blog/continuing-innovation-in-information-technology.html.

Is the Technological Singularity near? See http://i-a-e.org/iae-blog.html?start=40.

Moore’s Law and improving education. See http://i-a-e.org/iae-blog/moores-law-and-improving-education.html.

 

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Comments

David Moursund (website) on Saturday, 01 June 2013 23:11
Atomic Batteries.

In future-oriented science fiction, very powerful, long-lasting batteries are common place. One current approach to such batteries makes use of radioactive isotopes. See http://www.technologyreview.com/news/404293/the-atomic-battery/. Quoting from this article:

"A third option, though, may provide a powerful – and safe – alternative. It’s called the Direct Energy Conversion [/quote](DEC) Cell, a betavoltaics-based “nuclear” battery that can run for over a decade on the electrons generated by the natural decay of the radioactive isotope tritium. It’s developed by researchers at the University of Rochester and a startup, BetaBatt, in a project described in the May 13 issue of Advanced Materials and funded in part by the National Science Foundation.

Because tritium’s half-life is 12.3 years (the time in which half of its radioactive energy has been emitted), the DEC Cell could provide a decade’s worth of power for many applications. Clearly, that would be an economic boon – especially for applications in which the replacement of batteries is highly inconvenient, such as in medicine and oil and mining industries, which often place sensors in dangerous or hard-to-reach locations."

In future-oriented science fiction, very powerful, long-lasting batteries are common place. One current approach to such batteries makes use of radioactive isotopes. See http://www.technologyreview.com/news/404293/the-atomic-battery/. Quoting from this article: "A third option, though, may provide a powerful – and safe – alternative. It’s called the Direct Energy Conversion [/quote](DEC) Cell, a betavoltaics-based “nuclear” battery that can run for over a decade on the electrons generated by the natural decay of the radioactive isotope tritium. It’s developed by researchers at the University of Rochester and a startup, BetaBatt, in a project described in the May 13 issue of Advanced Materials and funded in part by the National Science Foundation. Because tritium’s half-life is 12.3 years (the time in which half of its radioactive energy has been emitted), the DEC Cell could provide a decade’s worth of power for many applications. Clearly, that would be an economic boon – especially for applications in which the replacement of batteries is highly inconvenient, such as in medicine and oil and mining industries, which often place sensors in dangerous or hard-to-reach locations."
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