Nuclear Power And EEStor’s Batteries

Following up on last week’s article about nuclear power, longtime reader Luigi sent the following comments:

As a physicist, let me point out a few items:

  • More people die of radiation poisoning in coal mines than in uranium mines. That’s right, it is not a misprint, there’s lots of radioactive material in coal mines and we mine a lot of coal.

  • Thermal pollution is one of the unwanted byproducts of nuclear power — nuclear power plants are not built by rivers for the scenery.

  • Radioactive waste disposal is an unsolved yet solvable problem in this country.

All this said, nuclear is the second cleanest mode of electrical energy production in large quantity (the first is hydroelectric, once you accept the ecological damage of dams).

Battery power! As long as we live in this universe and use electrochemical processes to store and recover electrical power, we will be stuck with the “standard electrochemical potential” of materials (don’t you love these impenetrable sentences? It’s a measure of the energy involved in moving charges in a battery). It is at best in the volt range and we would need it in the kilovolt: no such material exists or ever will.

We can increase the energy density in batteries (as in the lithium-based ones), but you reach the unstable, explosive danger stage rather quickly, raising the image of putting a bomb in your tank. Batteries are a reasonable short-term solution for quick trips, as in urban commuting [but that’s about all].

Best bet is hydrogen-oxygen: a few hundred billion dollars should solve the generation (electrolysis in all probability, because there’s plenty of water available) using solar power, distribution, and storage requirements. We already have the engines.

A real long-term solution is an Earth core tap. Geothermal energy is now being used more and more: the technology and use are primitive, but illustrate the point. Dig a hole several hundred miles deep and now you have real thermal power available for a very long time: a few
trillion dollars should do it. Cheaper than the war in Iraq.

I sent back to him the following: “I’m curious about your skepticism around batteries. I’ve read that amazing progress is being made and that companies like EEStor are almost ready with batteries that will enable drivers to go all day or a couple of days on a single plug-in charge of several hours. Are they exaggerating the claim?”

He replied:

To say the very least. I’ll believe it when I see it.

The energy density content (MegaJoules/Kg) claimed by EEStor is greater than dynamite’s. Ten jelly doughnuts (about 1Kg) have four times as much energy density! But doughnuts do not explode and the EEStor supercapacitor (or anybody else’s) can explode by short circuiting, a quality control nightmare considering the “shake and bake” vibration and temperature environment of a car. I have had relatively small capacitors explode — and they really go!

Next, I’d like to know more about the dielectric constant they claim to have achieved, as it is paramount for the storage capacity. Also, what were the test conditions? I can make any car get 100 mpg if you let me choose the test conditions.

Finally, with what efficiency can this energy be recovered and used, i.e. what is the energy delivered to the wheels? It ain’t 100%.

I have no reason to distrust Luigi or any other physicist, but the gang at work at EEStor looks qualified and confident.

The company claims that its electrical energy storage unit (EESU) will have more than thrice the energy density of current lithium-ion batteries. They also claim that the EESU is safer, lasts longer, and can fully recharge in five minutes. Don’t aim your tomatoes at me — that’s what the company claims.

Also, it’s not a lone voice from a crack lab. Canadian electric auto maker ZENN Motor has invested in EEStor and plans to release a car in autumn 2009 built around the EESU with a maximum speed of 80 mph and a range of 250 miles. That’s no golf cart.

When hit with doubts like those penned by Luigi, EEStor founder Dick Weir told a materials research conference held in San Francisco earlier this year, “EEStor is not hyping. There’s nothing complex in this.” Then, referring to his past engineering days at IBM, “It’s nowhere near the complexity of disk-drive fabrication.”

According to Technology Review:

Representatives of the company said in a press release that certification data proves that voltage breakdown of the aluminum oxide occurs at 1,100 volts per micron — nearly three times higher than EEStor’s target of 350 volts. “This provides the potential for excellent protection from voltage breakdown,” the company said.

If the adage to “follow the money” applies here, then EEStor is worth following. In addition to ZENN Motors, EEStor is backed by Lockheed Martin and famed venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers.

Anybody have further insight?

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