The Future: Batteries Not Included?

Why aren't we surprised that among the flaws and errors blamed for the Gulf oil spill disaster is a dead battery in a vital cut-off control panel? In hearings of the House Energy Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, according to Nola.com, Rep. Bart Stupak (D.-Mich.) made the connection:

Stupak said that dead man's switch, which is designed to trigger the BOP [blowout preventer, a vital backup safety assembly] if all else fails, is connected to two separate control pods in the BOP, but relies on battery power to make that connection.
"When one of the control pods was removed after the spill began, the battery was found to be dead," Stupak said.

Batteries, disposable and rechargeable, sealed and user-replaceable, have long been the Achilles heel of information technology, laden as many are with toxic chemicals. One problem with alternative energy that might impact its viability is that it shares the same technological bottleneck implicated in the Gulf: the battery.

The nickel metal hydride batteries used on today's hybrid cars were a breakthrough -- in 1982.
Lithium ion batteries also are a generation old by now, dating to Sony's introduction of one in 1991. Billions are now flowing to research and development, but according to one program director, "Nickel-metal hydride's an adult. Lithium-ion is a developing adolescent. And lithium-air, we're just looking at the ultrasounds."

In a review of Henry Schlesinger's The Battery, William Tucker writes in the Wall Street Journal:

The all-electric Nissan Leaf car... -- due out this year -- will feature a 500-pound block of lithium-ion batteries that adds $10,000 to its price yet gives it a range of only 100 miles before requiring eight hours of recharging...

Nissan claims that its Leaf batteries will be twice as powerful within a decade, but that may be wishful thinking. Batteries have come a long way in 200 years, as Mr. Schlesinger's chronicle vividly shows. But it would be a mistake to think that we are poised on the verge of another big breakthrough just because we desperately need one.

Maybe what we really need for the time being is to endow a battery responsible for a $15 million device with enough intelligence to at least announce its own failure. And from Apple, a replaceable battery for the iPad.

Presented by

Edward Tenner is a historian of technology and culture, and an affiliate of the Center for Arts and Cultural Policy at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School. He was a founding advisor of Smithsonian's Lemelson Center.

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