I went to a meeting today in a government building. It was one of those elusive places where you need an ID badge and an escort to get around. I wasn’t there for anything important—at least, my presence wasn’t important. A mathematician/astrophysicist was there regarding a new device he designed to store energy. The company I’m interning for this summer just sent me there because of my chemistry background. Most of the people I work with are administrative, so they just needed me to explain to them the basics of how it works and such.
The design really was interesting. It was a type of energy storage that can pack in hydrogen without high temperature or pressure. It’s not a battery—it still has to be connected to a fuel cell to operate, and it’s not terribly efficient, only about 20%. However, the amount of solar energy currently going to waste is astronomical, and this gives us a way to store it and use it later. I like it because it would make solar power much more attainable in residential establishments and, if they manage to get the cost down, can potentially take us off the electric grid.
Obviously, this device intrigued me. There had to be some drawback to it, but the designer just continued to rattle off the benefits and immense potential of the unit.
“Can you go over how it works?” I asked when there was a lapse in the discussion. “Like, maybe touch on the chemistry behind it a bit?” That was, after all, my only purpose in being there. I might as well try to be useful.
He paused and looked at the lady in charge of the department. “The whole thing…?”
“Just walk them through the basics of it,” she replied.
I leaned forward in my chair, ready to take in all the dirty details of this lustful bundle of renewable energy possibility. However, I was a little put off with his opening.
“Well, you see, I’m a recovering nerd, as my friends say. I used to be an astrophysicist. Most scientists, when they look at the hysteresis curve of a battery, they see the end points and the path followed. Astrophysicists look at the entire surface area. Think of a black hole, and how the surface area of the event horizon is a measure of the chaos enclosed within it. We look at this curve and, instead of trying to bring the end points closer together, we pull them apart, lowering the surface area.”
Excuse me? Did he just make a black hole reference? And he better have a damn good reason for bringing up hysteresis curves after I had spent over a year trying to recover from my inorganic chemistry class that used those. Well, the black hole bit definitely wasn’t necessary, but so far I’m still following what’s going on here. I did read Hawking’s A Brief History in Time AND The Universe in a Nutshell, so I can dig it.
Just when I thought we were finally going into the chemistry of how it worked, he started taking it apart and describing each piece. Not what it did, not how it served the overall purpose, but what it was called and what it was made of. Ah, I see. You have a polyethylene hollow chamber that resembles a drum. That’s why you call it a drum. Very good.
Once he got through all the major pieces, I was practically falling off my chair in suspense. I couldn’t wait to hear how all these pieced came together and did their job.
And that’s when he stopped.
He tried to go back to the applications of the unit in Africa and wherever, but I wasn’t letting him slip away that easily. I was too interested, and he had kept me on the edge too long.
“Sorry, can you go into a bit more detail about the process?” I said as politely as possible.
He sighed and looked back at the department head. “I don’t think they really want to hear that…”
“He’s been giving the same speech for five days in a row,” she said, far too sympathetically.
It was then that I realized what was going on here. This wasn’t a “demonstration,” like what we had put down as the reason for visiting the facility on the sign-in form. This was a sales pitch. This was a meeting for potential investors. I guess that should have been obvious since my boss was there precisely to decide if our company should invest in them. But still… what the hell kind of scientist doesn’t want to talk about his research? Why was he so intent on selling this crummy piece of metal that he sounded more like a car dealer than a respected member of the scientific community?
I was disappointed at the time. I thought of him as a traitor whom had jumped ship to become a businessman or salesman. However, after stewing about it for a bit, I realize why he chose to go this route.
As we all know, renewable energy sources are expensive. And it takes way more effort than it should to incorporate them into our lives. Most of the time, these innovative, life-changing discoveries that have the potential to eliminate our dependence on oil or reduce CO2 emissions by 300% end up in journal articles, get a little bit of hype online and maybe get a 3-minute segment on the evening news, and then disappear completely. Even the ones that manage to get poised for takeoff end up being so expensive they can never realistically replace our current fuel sources.
Renewable energy isn’t inherently more expensive than fossil fuels. The methods are more expensive now because the devices haven’t been optimized. Back when coal-burning was a commodity, it was considered a luxury only the privileged could afford. The price eventually lowered to where average people could afford it due to constant advancements in the coal industry, trying to reduce the cost of production as much as possible so as to maximize profit and stay competitive with other companies. That’s how it happens in a capitalist economy. Because, let’s face it, economy drives everything.
Renewable fuel sources never get to the stage where their cost of production can be reduced. I hate to sound petty and blame it all on the utility and gas companies, but they really are the main antagonists. If these green alternatives enter the market, power plants and gas companies will lose profits and eventually (one hopes) go out of business. They don’t want that, and since they’re so big and powerful, they can flex their muscles and give green innovators as many obstacles as possible. Government policy often caters to big businesses, with the hope that it will keep more Americans working. The government does provide occasional incentives for green energy, but most of their policies go to keeping the big guys happy. It does invest some money in green alternatives, I’ll give it credit for that, but it’s just not enough.
In a field so behind in its research, you have to spend money to make money. Without investment into extensive research developing, refining, and optimizing, these alternatives don’t stand a chance. They’ll rarely get the price down far enough to be competitive, and without reasonable prices, this technology just fades into the background.
Right now, things are looking good for this energy-storage unit, and if it succeeds, it’ll be a monumental step for solar power, wind power, as well as other green fuel sources that are plentiful but not necessarily convenient. The one thing it needs more than anything right now is funding, but for those of us who can’t provide funding, getting excited about it helps, too.