Matrix recharged

Matrix rechargedOne of the big problems facing society in its search for sustainable alternative energy sources is not how to harness wind, solar, or wave power, but how to store the electricity produced using these elements at times of low demand. Capacitors could be the answer. These devices can be charged up very quickly, store electrical energy for long periods, and then be discharged rapidly for a range of applications. Such capacitors are on the horizon but their small-scale cousins are developing even more rapidly for portable applications. Find out more in the May issue of Intute Spotlight.

Also under the Spotlight this month, Norwegian scientists have drawn up a league table of alternative fuels for cars based on what they call a “well-to-wheel” analysis. Their approach takes into account the energy costs in manufacturing, total energy use, and overall pollution included greenhouse gas emissions. Unsurprisingly, petrol and diesel vehicles foot the table, closely followed by hybrid vehicles. In contrast, the greenest way to power a vehicle turns out to be to use an electric fuel cell powered by hydrogen made from natural gas, methane.

Finally, in the 1950s, the atomic clock was the pinnacle of split-second time-keeping. Today, physicists use its successors based on energy transitions in rubidium atoms that gives them 100 times more accuracy. These clocks currently operate at their theoretical limit but nevertheless are accurate to one second every 50 million years. Quantum noise, the random fluctuations of atoms and ions and the grim truth of Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle would probably mean no improvements for the next 50 million years.

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2 thoughts on “Matrix recharged

  1. I believe you are dead-on accurate in saying one of the biggest issues in energy production is energy storage – particularly electricity. The fact that it is very, very difficult and expensive to store electricity in large quantities is something that restricts energy choices at all levels. It also makes electricity fundamentally different than almost every other commodity – a fact often overlooked. Were electric energy storage to become as easy as say, water storage is on both the micro and macro levels, renewable energies and their intermittent output would prove far more practical as bulk producers – the kind which are needed for large urban areas.

  2. Great set of articles David

    Supercaps are the great dark horse innovation of the times with the potential to radically change all the rules in a number of electrical power domains. I recall some forty odd years ago being set an exercise in a physics class to calculate the size of a one farad capacitor. As I recall, based on the wax and foil design we were working with, it worked out to be about the size of a railroad tanker car – now they’re the size of a ‘D’ battery.

    Which brings us to the second topic on transportation fuels; Supercaps may well be the final answer to this issue as well, if they continue to develop at the same pace they have been. Great power-to-weight numbers, fast charge times, and superb cycle-lives would be a godsend to this market.

    Finally, again we see that the clockmaker is the real pioneer of the future. It’s easy to take this branch of engineering for granted; that is until you realize how much of our technology depends on accurately subdividing and measuring time.

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