Batteries Included

For some reason or other a flurry of stories about batteries and fuel cells have caught my eye this morning. In the first large batteries may be used as a method of load-balancing in the power grid:

Batteries have long been vital to laptops and cellphones. They are increasingly supplying electricity to an unlikely recipient: the power grid itself.

Until recently, large amounts of electricity could not be efficiently stored. Thus, when you turn on the living-room light, power is instantly drawn from a generator.

A new type of a room-size battery, however, may be poised to store energy for the nation’s vast electric grid almost as easily as a reservoir stockpiles water, transforming the way power is delivered to homes and businesses. Compared with other utility-scale batteries plagued by limited life spans or unwieldy bulk, the sodium-sulfur battery is compact, long-lasting and efficient.

Using so-called NaS batteries, utilities could defer for years, and possibly even avoid, construction of new transmission lines, substations and power plants, says analyst Stow Walker of Cambridge Energy Research Associates. They make wind power — wildly popular but frustratingly intermittent — a more reliable resource. And they provide backup power in case of outages, such as the one that hit New York City last week.

Such benefits are critical, because power demand is projected to soar 50% by 2030 and other methods of expanding the power supply are facing growing obstacles. Congress is likely to cap carbon dioxide emissions by traditional power plants to curtail global warming. Meanwhile, communities are fighting plans for thousands of miles of high-voltage transmission lines needed to zap electricity across regions.

Hat tip: Glenn Reynold. It seems to me that the power drop in the DC to AC conversion would be a concern here as well.

I found the second story particularly interesting. A biological fuel cell has been developed :

Scientists at Oxford University have come up with a way to make electricity biologically. It’s not an English version of Ed Begley, pedaling his stationary bike attached to a turbine to make tea and crumpets. Nope, two different enzymes (hydrogenase and laccase) work together to kick start the chemical reactions that make electricity from hydrogen. It’s a biological fuel cell.

Traditional fuel cells generally use platinum to catalyze the reactions. The precious metal is scarce and toxic, making it expensive and hardly eco-friendly. The enzymes in bio-fuel cells are ubiquitous, found in plants and micro-organisms. They are pretty much infinitely renewable and completely biodegradable. They effectively make biological batteries that never run out as long as there is some hydrogen around. And what’s more, the hydrogen stream does not have to be pure, as it does for chemical catalysts. The enzymes simply pick and choose the hydrogen atoms from a smorgasbord of gases that would render the traditional fuel cell utterly impotent.

Ain’t life grand!

The university’s commercialization company, Isis Innovations has a couple of bio-fuel cells running a digital watch as a demo, reminiscent of, but a jot more sophisticated than sticking electrodes into a spud. The company hopes the invention will juice up all kinds of small electronics, and eventually more power-hungry gizmos.

My guess is that discarded batteries and, increasingly, fuel cells will be an increasing problem over the next few years but technologies like this, while they wouldn’t eliminate the problem would make the discards environmentally friendlier.

Not everything is rosy in the world of batteries. There’s a new product safety worry about Chinese products and this time it’s with batteries:

Not only must Nokia and Motorola Inc., the world’s two biggest mobile phone-makers, deal with Apple Inc.’s headline-making entry into their business, they now face a concern of another sort: reports that batteries in their phones are exploding in China.

Schaumburg-based Motorola is involved in reports of two faulty-phone incidents.

In one, a Chinese man in the Gansu province was killed when the battery in his Motorola phone exploded, according to Bloomberg News, citing Chinese press reports.

In the second incident, Motorola and Nokia phones and batteries reportedly failed safety tests, but both companies told the Chicago Tribune on Friday that those products, bought and tested from a mobile phone store in China’s Guangdong province, where many of the world’s electronic gadgets are manufactured, have been confirmed as counterfeit.

“One of the alleged Motorola phones tested was not even a model we make,” said a spokesman from Motorola’s governmental affairs division in Washington.

It seems like there’s a new product safety scare with Chinese-made products every week. Is this new or have the news media just taken note of it recently?

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