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February 27, 2012

Record Battery Energy Density in Context [Updated]

Envia Batteries

A tech company called Envia Systems has announced that it is able to produce rechargeable lithium-ion batteries (Li-ion, i.e., the standard kind of rechargeable batteries that go in everything from phones to electric cars) with a world-record energy density of 400 Watt-hours per kilogram! (Gigaom has lots of info, and useful background material.) Cool, right?

Yes? No?

Energy density is one of those really important concepts that not many people know about; it's not an exaggeration to say that a viable renewable energy future depends upon boosting energy density of batteries.

But it's hard to evaluate the importance of an announcement like this if you don't have context, so here you go:

Okay, 400 Watt-hours per kilogram (henceforth Wh/kg) means that one kilogram of battery material will be able to pump out electricity at a level of 400 Watts for one hour.

According to Envia, the best commercially-available Li-ion battery has an energy density of around 245 Wh/kg, so this new technology almost doubles that. This is good. Moreover, most Li-ion batteries operate at about 100-150 Wh/kg. The batteries in the Nissan Leaf, for example, have an energy density of about 120 Wh/kg (24 KWh/200kg). Tripling that density would, in principle, triple the range of the Leaf, taking it from around 100 miles to around 300 miles, a range close to a typical gasoline-powered car. This is very good.

But it's not revolutionary -- it's a (significant) incremental improvement.

That's because, even at 400Wh/kg, batteries still don't have an energy density anywhere close to fossil fuels.

Gasoline offers somewhere around 12,000 Wh/kg, 30x the energy density of the Envia battery technology. A Nissan Leaf with the same mass of gasoline-equivalent superbatteries would have a range of around 9,000 miles. Alternatively, to get the same 300 mile range as with the Envia batteries, the Nissan SuperLeaf would only need around 3kg of batteries.

I'm not discounting the importance of this breakthrough, not by any means, but it's important to keep this in context. There's a good reason why petroleum has such a hold on the world of transportation, and it's going to take a lot more than a tripling of battery energy density to beat it. Or, more to the point, moving beyond the gasoline automobile is going to take more than simply chipping away at energy density comparisons -- it's going to take a complete re-thinking of what we mean by transportation.

As has been pointed out to me, in comments and in direct communication (and with varying degrees of politeness), this isn't an entirely fair comparison. It would be more accurate to compare the combination of energy density + drive efficiency.

Most standard automobiles have an average internal combustion engine efficiency of around 20% -- that is, of the energy available in the fuel, about 20% is eventually translated into motive force. So that 12,000 Wh/kg is effectively "only" 2,400 Wh/kg.

Electric motors, conversely, are extremely efficient at translating available energy into motive force; at 90%, that 400 Wh/kg Envia battery is still effectively 360 Wh/kg.

So a gasoline engine system 6.67x better than the Envia, not 30x better. The difference isn't as gobsmacking, but it's still significant, and remains a reminder of just how far battery technology has yet to evolve.

February 16, 2012

Forensic Futurism

CSIthefutureIf there's a common trope about "futurism," it's that it gets everything wrong.

From jetpacks to vacations on the Moon, any discussion of futurism in broader culture very quickly turns into a listing of the various crazy things that "futurists" (whether or not they'd call themselves that) have said over the past century. Sometimes it's an easy one-off article, sometimes it's an entire book
or blog devoted the topic. Done well, it's a kind of indulgent ridicule: those futurists sure are whacky, but charmingly whacky.

Anyone who has read my stuff will know that I'm not really fond of being called a "futurist," although it's the most widely-recognized name for what I do. I don't make predictions, and I don't talk in certainties; I'm all about trying to illuminate surprising implications of present-day processes. I don't expect that the scenarios I offer will be right, but I do want them to be usefully provocative.

But that doesn't mean that I'm irritated by the focus on futurists being wrong (although I will admit to being tired of the "jetpack" trope; can't we come up with another stereotyped prediction?). I wrote a piece awhile back about "legacy futures," and pay close attention to the responsibility foresight professionals have to acknowledging when they get things wrong.

So when the term "forensic futurism" showed up today (see the extended entry for how & why), it hit me as something both useful and meaningful.

It's not enough simply to point and ridicule about whacky futurists. Those of us in the discipline really need to examine why serious forecasts can turn out to be terribly wrong. This takes two related forms:

  • Understanding why forecast X didn't happen as expected. Maybe we thought that certain drivers would continue to be important, or that other drivers wouldn't be important, or perhaps simply never expected a "Black Swan" event. This is a useful practice for all foresight professionals, in order to better understand (and ultimately to communicate) how reasonable expectations can go terribly wrong.

  • Understanding why X was forecast in the first place. This is the more difficult process, as it requires engaging in an objective, dispassionate look at how futurists came to their conclusions. Not simply what they looked at, the lines of evidence they selected as important, but why they chose those lines of evidence in the first place.

    "Forensics" is a process involved in criminology, and I don't want to imply that futurists who get things wrong are doing something of dubious morality or legality. Instead, I'm riffing on the more popularized concept of the process, that of a strictly-evidence-based examination of a mysterious result. Leaping to conclusions, going only by hunches, and other subjective approaches are to be frowned upon; what we want to do is take a serious look at how we think about the future, in order to do so more usefully in the time to come.

    It's a bit frustrating sometimes.

    I'll be doing something innocuous -- reading a magazine, playing a game, something with a relatively low (but not zero) cognitive threshold, so that my brain is working but not focused -- and a phrase will pop into my head. It'll be novel (to me), typically a combination of terms that don't usually go together, yet seemingly something meaningful. I'll hop onto whatever digital device I have handy to see if someone else is already talking about the topic, to see if it's already a real thing. Often it is, and I can return to whatever I was doing. But sometimes, it's not -- it's a combination of terms that hasn't before been seen by the mighty eye of Google.

    "Forensic Futurism" was today's term. And aside from a few pages including the two terms in an alphabetical listing, it's a term without a pre-existing presence. So the rest of my afternoon was spent trying to figure out what the hell forensic futurism might be, and why it sounded like it should mean something useful and/or important.

  • February 14, 2012

    Scenarios of Ill Repute

    RepsocietyA new volume on the evolving role of digital reputation, The Reputation Society: How Online Opinions Are Reshaping the Offline World is now out (also in Kindle format). Edited by my former Worldchanging colleague Hassan Masum (along with his colleague at the University of Waterloo, Mark Tovey), The Reputation Society includes essays by a wide array of writers, including Craig Newmark, Cory Doctorow, Alex Steffen, and me. My contribution, the cleverly-titled "The Future of Reputation Networks," is a set of scenarios of how online reputation systems might evolve over the next 10-20 years.

    I use a classic two-dynamic scenario structure (whether the reputation networks are broad or narrow, and whether the reputation scores are directly assigned by users or "emergent"), resulting in four fairly different worlds.

    In the extended entry you'll find one of the four scenarios, "Augmented Relationships."

    Hiroko hated getting to the airport early, but her hosts had arranged for the taxi, and traffic was amazingly light. She stepped briskly around an older couple trying to figure out how to use the biometric check-in—“just walk through at a normal pace, guys”—and got in line for security. The airport security staff all wore augmented reality glasses that would identify people in line and pull up relevant data, monitor for microchanges to their facial expressions, and even run security cam searches to track their recent movements.

    There were signs everywhere demanding that all augmented reality (AR) glasses, smartpads, and cameraphones be shut off. (People still use cameraphones? Yeah, probably that couple still stuck at check-in.) Nice. They get to see everything about us, but we don’t get to see anything about them. How’s that “transparent society” working out for you?

    Hiroko amused herself while she waited by thinking about the supposedly ultrasecure, classified software the Transportation Security Administration AR systems ran. Cracked and available for download within a day. It was a nice bit of kit, though, even if not quite legal for her to use. Fortunately, the smartpad that still had the system loaded was at home.

    She sailed through security, of course (although was startled, as she was putting her shoes back on, to see all of the TSA workers suddenly lift their heads and turn to look at the same guy—he must have tripped some rep flag, but whatever it was wasn’t enough for him to be stopped).

    Getting to her gate reminded Hiroko of the one advantage of early arrival: she could grab one of the open power plugs. Turning her AR specs back on, she gazed idly at the other passengers slowly filtering in, and waited for the market sim to load on her pad. Everyone had the same pre-jet-lagged look, even—hey!—that old couple. Guess they figured out how to check in.

    She avoided staring, of course. If she looked for too long at someone’s face, the specs would try to identify who it was, whether you had any connection to him or her, and then work out how you should feel about that person based on how other people in your social network respond to him or her. Sometimes useful, but also a bit rude—like you were looking for the right way to try to flirt. As a result, she didn’t have anything more than the basic reputation watch app on her specs—frankly, she thought, the super-detailed rep systems were something for aging Gen Y’ers, training wheels for the no longer digitally hip.

    The guy sitting down a couple of rows away caught her eye. He looked familiar, but she couldn’t place him. Okay, just this once, she thought, and held her gaze. He looked up, and seemed to have a similar don’t-I-know-her reaction. After a second, a light ring popped up around his face, along with his name (Michael Ahmadi) and the connection.

    He used to date her sister. Her sister had told her all sorts of things about their relationship. Very, very detailed things. Too-much-information kind of things. As if on cue, the ring Hiroko’s AR system displayed around Michael’s face started pulsing bright red—“he’s a hot one.”

    Hiroko’s face went just as red and she quickly looked down, just as Michael’s augmented reality system identified her. In an instant, he saw who she was, saw the connection, and guessed why she was blushing.

    He started blushing, too, and quickly looked away.

    Hiroko sighed quietly. This was going to be a long flight.

    February 13, 2012

    Got the Time

    I've been mulling something of late, and it hasn't left me in a tremendously good mood.

    Take a look at these two sets of graphs:

    The first one is from the US Energy Information Administration, a group within the US Department of Energy tasked with coming up with independent statistics and analysis on US and world energy use. This chart is from the "International Energy Outlook 2011" report, released last September. It shows the breakdown of fuels used to generate electricity, given fairly conservative projections of growth and changing energy mix.

    It shows that, by 2025 -- a little over 10 years from now -- coal will provide 10,200 terawatt-hours (TWh) out of a total of 28,700 TWh produced around the world, annually. By 2035, it's up to 12,900 TWh out of 35,200 TWh.

    The second graph is from an article by David Roberts in Grist last year, "The Brutal Logic of Climate Change." Based on work done by leading energy/climate researcher Kevin Anderson (former head of the UK's Tyndall Energy Program), it shows how soon we as a planet need to start reducing carbon emissions, and how rapidly they need to decline given different "peak emissions" points. That's to avoid a 2 degree C increase in global temperatures, now understood to be a potentially catastrophic level of warming.

    Here, we see that if we have peak emissions of around 65 gigatons of CO2 equivalent in 2025, we have to be down to under 20 GtCO2e by roughly 2035, and to zero GtCO2 shortly thereafter. In energy terms, we'd have to go from this:


    to this:


    Basically, we have to replace over 21,000 TWh of electricity generation from coal and natural gas (yes, natural gas is less-harmful than coal, but still has a greenhouse impact) with an equivalent amount from some mix of renewable, hydro, and nuclear. And do it in 10 years.

    Except it will have to be more than that, at least another 15,000 TWh more, because we'll have to replace all of the gasoline and diesel-powered vehicles on the roads around the world with alternative forms of transportation, all of which has to be electric (or human/animal-powered). And also add however much new power is required to run the various production lines day and night to make all of the needed photovoltaics, wind turbines, electric buses, and such.

    For comparison, the world added... 15 TWh in solar in 2010.

    Set aside issues of politics and economics, and simply look at raw logistics: is it even possible to undertake that kind of shift in 10 years?

    As the second set of graphs above suggests, if we start before a 2025 peak, we'll have somewhat less carbon-based energy production we'd have to replace, and somewhat more time in which to do it. Not much, though -- even peaking in 2015 only pushes the deadline(!) out to 2050, if we're lucky (the red & blue lines in the graphs show alternative scenarios from the IPCC, none of which are very pleasant).

    But given the current global political environment, it's difficult to imagine a real agreement to eliminate carbon emissions, taken seriously by all parties, showing up before the end of this decade.

    So here are our three scenarios:

    1) We manage to get a real global agreement in place within the next five-eight years, and spend the subsequent 25 or so years undertaking the largest industrial transformation imaginable. Politically implausible.

    2) We don't get a real global agreement in place before 2025, and have to cut emissions by 10% per year (as Roberts notes, the biggest drop we've seen is 5% after the USSR's economy collapsed). Physically implausible.

    3) Neither of those happen, and we start to see truly awful impacts, mostly in the developing world at first, all of which make the world politically more hostile and economically more fragile -- and make it more difficult to cut carbon emissions effectively.

    This is why I think geoengineering is going to happen. Desperate people do desperate things, and when you hear sober scientists say things like population "carrying capacity estimates [are] below 1 billion people" in a world of 4 degree warming, it's hard to argue convincingly that the uncertainty and risks around geoengineering are worse.

    Anyone who thinks that geoengineering is a way to avoid cutting carbon is an idiot. Geoengineering is a tourniquet, a desperate measure to stop the bleeding when nothing else can work in time. If Anderson's analysis is accurate (and, if anything, it may be optimistic), it's hard to see how we can avoid taking these desperate measures.

    February 11, 2012

    Whoa, BIL

    After a few years of cajoling, the organizers of the BIL conference (in particular, one Simone Syed) have finally broken me. I will be speaking at BIL 2012, on Saturday March 3. BIL will take place at the Queen Mary in Long Beach, California, and is open to the public. BIL runs in rough parallel to the (*much* more expensive and *much* more formal) TED conference; the pun at the heart of the conference's name ("BIL and TED" huh huh, huh huh) should give you a good reading of the original organizers' demographics and cultural background. But I digress.

    I'll be giving a short talk -- 15-20 minutes seems to be the guideline -- on an as-yet undetermined topic. Here's where you, gentle reader, come in: what should I talk about?

    There are some obvious choices, based on stuff I've written about or talked about at length before: geoengineering, human augmentation, ethics and robotics.

    There are some choices based on stuff I've been mulling for awhile, topics that could either be a big smash or a big flop: social futures, the process of futurism/foresight thinking, what a successful sustainable future could look like.

    Then there are the concepts I've written about or talked about, but are kind of outside my usual ideaspace: teratocracy, "we are as gods (but mostly like Loki)," the Fermi Paradox.

    Again, it's only 15-20 minutes, so whatever I talk about will inevitably be more superficial or less detailed than one might wish.

    Any suggestions?

    Jamais Cascio

    Contact Jamais  ÃƒÂƒÃ‚ƒÃ‚ƒÃ‚ƒÃ‚¢Ã‚€Â¢  Bio

    Co-Founder, WorldChanging.com

    Director of Impacts Analysis, Center for Responsible Nanotechnology

    Fellow, Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies

    Affiliate, Institute for the Future


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