Department of Energy's $150M Battery Money Hole

By Rob Enderle December 07, 2012

You’d think I’d be excited about the government spending around $120M to fund a hub designed to increase battery capacity by five times while reducing costs to one-fifth of their current level. And don’t get me wrong – such a battery would do amazing things for the electronics industry. 

But if you think of what a battery is, basically a gas tank for electricity, would you be as excited about a $120M program to increase the size of a gas tank and reduce, not the price of gasoline, but the cost of the tank by as much?  

Of course not, because you’d realize that the cost of gas, which like electricity, continues to go up would cost you around $250 and you’d have the same gas mileage. Not to mention if you had an accident, you’d have the potential for 5x the explosion.  

Little known fact: a lithium ion battery has one-fourth the energy density of dynamite. Now multiply this five times and I’m not sure you’d want the result in your car, computer bag, or pocket as you’d likely end up blown up, or missing a leg.  

I’m kind of guessing Homeland Security and he FAA might have issues with this as well. 

So why is this such a bad idea?   Well they forgot to focus on the problem.

Wireless Power

The problem that batteries are designed to overcome is getting power to devices that can’t be plugged in and where onboard combustion has proven ineffective.   Be aware that we were on a path to creating little generators to solve the same problem, but the FAA had issues with the lighter fluid we were going to have to carry to power them. They were called fuel cells and they would have solved the portable power problem far better than batteries. 

So to restate, the goal is to have unlimited power for devices you can’t physically connect to a power source.  And if this effort was to focus on this, it might come to the conclusion that a better and far safer approach to the problem might be inductive charging. That way, you could leave the batteries alone for the most part, or even make them smaller, because the devices and automobiles would be charging more often.  

This solution was just demonstrated in a bus put together by the Utah State University team. It uses an inductive grid at Bus stops to keep the batteries topped off. As long as the bus is going from stop to stop, it has virtually unlimited power.  

Inductive power is used in the new Lumia 920 phone by Nokia and inductive chargers are expected to be in a variety of automobiles for your various toys shortly. This technology is available today, it is very safe (we even have inductive cook tops) and just simply needs to more prevalent for cars and devices to move to it aggressively.  

Another way to address this problem is through more efficient mobile power generation. For instance, fuel cells can be made small enough to put into devices, and unlike charging a battery, you’d simply refill the little gas tank to instantly continue using your device.

The problem has been for micro-fuel cells; the FAA doesn’t want you to carry the lighter fluid that would power them for fear that it might be misused on a plane. 

Finally, Intel and others have made progress with broadcast power.  This would of course be the ultimate fix. If you could broadcast over-the-air energy, you’d never need to use a plug or a gas station again. We have been able to transfer energy through lasers or microwaves relatively well, but neither approach is particularly safe, and Intel’s method, while far safer, is also far more range limited and far less efficient.  

Wrapping Up: Getting to the Point

The point of all of this is that by focusing on the technology, rather than the goal, and setting unreasonable benchmarks all the government has done is created yet one more money hole. Given the budget battle currently going on in Washington, that seems counterproductive as well.   

Instead they should focus their research efforts in creating better ways to move power around not better ways to aggregate it. 

By focusing on the tool, rather than the goal, I’m afraid the U.S. Government has simply found another way to waste money. And that’s a shame given the core problem is one of the most important ones we have to correct.  

Edited by Braden Becker

President and Principal Analyst, Enderle Group

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