What will happen after batteries?

Batteries have been around for a long time. The earliest example is an artifact discovered in Baghdad, known as the Parthian Battery and is speculated to be approximately 2,000 years old.1

The basic chemistry of batteries has remained consistent over the last 215 years when scientists such as Alessandro Volta re-discovered and experimented with battery technology.

A big breakthrough in batteries came with the prevalence of Lithium-ion chemistry. Today, mobile technology is inextricable from the performance and life-cycle of “Li-ion”batteries.

It’s easy to find yourself living like some kind of electric hummingbird, plugging into every available energy “flower” just to keep the buzz going.

A few weeks ago I had one of Samsung’s (former) chief mobile designers at my bar. We started chatting about technology and I mentioned that I was an aspiring tech writer with a knack for calling trends.

He asked me what I thought was the next big thing.

I responded that we need a breakthrough in batteries before we’ll see the next leap in mobile technology.

He nodded and shared that battery technology was a hot topic for everyone in the mobile device world… 2 years ago.

“We’ve pushed the chemistry as far as it can go. We can put out 3.5 Amps from a battery that’s a few millimeters thick, by 30 millimeters wide, by 70 millimeters long. ”

He did concede that power will still be an important frontier, but in terms of efficiency and the use of photovoltaics, particularly transparent films that could harvest power from any light – the way most cheap calculators do.

I asked him about the possible impact that graphene could have, but he wasn’t familiar with the material or its properties.

I respect his insider’s perspective, yet I still find it hard to believe that batteries are as good as they will get, especially since they haven’t changed fundamentally since their inception.

  1. http://batteryuniversity.com/learn/article/when_was_the_battery_invented ↩︎

Why don’t cars use metal wheels instead of rubber?

I asked my Dad this question when I was no older than five or six years. We were standing in a garage and there was a racecar on the lift.

I remember hearing the other men talk about replacing the tires. As a wee lad, it seemed obvious to me: if rubber wears out, just make the tires out of metal…

A good laugh was had over my uninformed question, though no one was unkind. I can’t remember if they tried explaining the realities of rubber tires and asphalt, or if they just moved on.

Now, 20 years later I realize that it wasn’t the stupid question that I thought it was.

Combat vehicles and construction vehicles both utilize articulated metal tracks on metal sprockets. They’re not high speed, but the application has precedent.

It goes to show that an absurd question can point to an unforeseen solution. Obviously, articulated tracks for armored vehicles and bulldozers were invented years before I was born, however, in my young brain there was a non-linear understanding that allowed me to ask the question.

I’m recounting this anecdote to illustrate the value of absurd and seemingly uninformed questions. A child’s question. The sort of inquiry that could lead to a solution too simple for the advanced logic of the expert, but no less useful.

I’m still asking questions like this. And for years I thought that my question about metal tires was silly. Today I realized that metal “tires” exist. I wonder about other questions from my childhood.