Friday, January 5, 2018

Graphene—a tribute to Industrial-Class virtue

A big-picture look at the requirements for meaningful action on climate change will always come back to the subject of energy. The human need for energy is what drives the problem. Plus no matter what problem you are trying to solve, from plastics recycling to increased clean-water supplies, the solution WILL require energy.

Running the world on solar supplies alone is probably possible but it will be ridiculously difficult to pull off. Of course, I spent most of my life believing that solar cells would always be so expensive that it would require social subsidies to get countries to make the conversion. And I was mostly right—both wind and solar technologies have been aided by social / political demand and subsidies until now. But now when it comes to solar cells, they have become the low-cost option for electrical generation.

But because they don't work at night, solar cells need a storage system to make them conventionally reliable. Electrical storage has been a primary interest of mine since the 1950s. I had a flywheel phase and a super-capacitor phase along the way. But mostly I ignored the battery stage because of personal experience with their costs and unreliability combined with a series of lavish claims for improved performance that seemed to fizzle on closer inspection.

This time, the key to storage will probably be graphene—a substance first theorized by P.R.Wallace in 1947 while a new hire at Canada's McGill University. This stuff is amazing but ridiculously hard to produce. Not so surprisingly, it's the Koreans who are figuring out how to make commercial quantities—they have set their sights of being world leaders in battery technology and there are a multitude of arguments suggesting they are already there.

The YouTube below will explain the role of graphene in a possible sustainable future. Spend 6:02 of your life to understand this almost miraculous material.

And here is a little 3 minute clip showing graphene research results from academia. These folks think the a threefold increase in energy density from current lithium-ion battery technology is a conservative number. Who knows, maybe, just maybe, someone will really make a breakthrough is this mostly breakthrough resistant product. Get a 5x improvement and we can start talking about battery-powered flight and serious grid-level storage. Just remember, technological improvement is not automatic even though the computer example has taught a whole generation to believe that next year, the new computers will be cheaper and faster. Battery technology has gone for quite awhile without a breakthrough. So in this sphere, the progress almost everyone seems to believe is automatic has been anything but. Of course, it was never automatic in computers either but rather the outcome of very smart people working very hard.


  1. A lot of the buzz in mass storage is about high efficiency compressed air. You compress air all day and release air to spin generators all night. It winds up being much more efficient than trying to store the energy as electricity, which has been a bit of stumbling block.

    1. Whatever works. My experience with air compressors is that they are unreliable even with regular tending. But maybe a large-scale installation run by professionals could be reliable but it sounds like a stretch.