I don’t know why, but I love the line: “So here we are, on your actual brink,” from the movie 2010: The Year We Make Contact. In 2010, NSA Chairman Victor Milson was talking about the imminent threat of World War III; but I think of those words whenever I read a new article about something new we’ve discovered or developed about battery technology, energy storage and solar photovoltaic improvements.
You may not realize how close we are to a paradigm shift in energy collection, storage and distribution.
As we delve into the qualities of the chains of single carbon atoms known as Fullerenes, learn how to lay down single layers of other atoms, and devise optical signal channels to replace traditional electronics, we keep discovering previously unknown ways to input, store and output greater amounts of energy, ways to capture a wider wavelength of light by photovoltaics, ways to minimize loss, heat buildup and leakage, ways to build more efficient electronics, and even safe ways to wirelessly transmit energy from place to place.
We are amazingly close to solar cells that achieve a 50% efficiency in energy collection, without the performance drop-off caused by excessive heat build-up. We have almost learned enough to create batteries that will hold 10-100 times the energy of current batteries, take scant seconds to charge and be able to produce enough power to move cars as if they were powered by rocket fuel.
When that happens, we can literally say goodbye to the gasoline economy. Cars will be able to drive cross-country on electricity, needing to stop maybe only four times for a minute-long charge (or possibly getting recharged from the road itself). Homes can be powered by rooftop solar arrays and store their excess energy in basement storage cells, cutting their reliance on centralized power grids except in emergencies.
Appliances like cellphones and tablets will see the first benefits: They will be able to last for weeks of constant use on a single charge, and only require about 30 seconds’ proximity to a wireless node to recharge. Compared to today’s need to be constantly mindful of usage, charge and availability of convenient power sources and cables, devices that seemingly never cease to run will seem like Clarke magic.
And for once, we’re not talking about something our grandchildren may enjoy. We are scant years away from the building and tooling of the first factories to start churning out these solar cells and manufacturing these batteries. We are close to an explosion of electric vehicles, optimized to run on the latest battery technology.
We are on the actual brink. We will see these advances in our hands. Soon. Think of it.