Concurrently with writing this series of blog posts, I have been reading Steve Levine’s newly published book “The Powerhouse: Inside the Invention of a Battery to Save the World“. The book is a bit of a mess, full of random jumps, wrong turns and dead ends. Perhaps that is appropriate, since it describes a battery development process that is full of random jumps, wrong turns and dead ends.
While the back cover blurb tells me that the book reads like a thriller, it is more like Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s tale “The Dog That Didn’t Bark”. We have two questing groups of heroes: the public-sector Argonne National Laboratory battery guys and the plucky private-sector upstarts at Envia Systems. Yet the book peters out at the end, with both teams abjectly failing in their respective quests to find the super battery Holy Grail. Argonne’s new version of nickel manganese cobalt batteries (NMC 2.0) suffers from chronic voltage fade (meaning that the performance of the battery slumps after repeated recharging cycles). Meanwhile, Envia’s super battery is spectacularly flawed, based on a collapsing anode and dodgy intellectual property.
Despite the book being in need of a good edit, it is still full of interesting insights into the battery development process. In a chapter recounting conversations with Don Hillebrand, an old school auto expert working at Argonne, Levine makes this observation:
Unlike microchips, batteries don’t adhere to a principle akin to Moore’s law, the rule of thumb that the number of switches on a chip–semiconductor efficiency–doubles every eighteen months. Batteries were comparatively slow to advance. But that did not make electronics superior to electric cars.
Consumer electronics typically wear out and require replacement every two or three years. They lock up, go on the fritz, and generally degrade. They are fragile when jostled or dropped and are often cheaper to replace than repair. If battery manufacturers and carmakers produced such mediocrity, they would be run out of business, sued for billions and perhaps even go to prison if anything catastrophic occurred. Automobiles have to last at least a decade and start every time. Their performance had to remain roughly the same throughout. They had to be safe while moving–or crashing–at high speed.
At this point, I want to refer you back to the original 1965 article by Gordon Moore that ushered in Moore’s Law entitled “Cramming more components onto integrated circuits.” From this, we have the quintessential exponential chart, which delivers a straight line if you put the y-axis onto a logarithmic scale (click for larger image):
This is the world of Ray Kurzweil‘s singularity which I blogged on in a post a couple of years back called “Singularity or Collapse: Part 1 (For Ever Exponential?“. As knowledge increases by powers of 10, virtually every challenge faced by mankind dissolves. Continue reading