Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Batteries for Solar Power: Do we need technicians?

When I was a young boy, I thought the only places where batteries were needed were in flashlights. Then I learned that we had one in our car to get it started. As a young adult, I knew we needed lots of batteries to operate our children’s toys. Now we need them for laptops. Batteries continuously get more important in my life; now they’re vital to the future of alternative energy—particularly wind energy and solar voltaics. Actually, I think they’re absolutely critical to the practical use of these two forms of “green energy”.

Solar voltaic cells and windmills convert these two forms of free, available, natural energy directly to electricity—and only at the times when they are available (i.e., when the sun is shining or the wind is blowing.) So, the problem is that we have to use their electric energy at the precise time when it is available, or we have to be able to store it until it is needed. We will probably need to store the energy from solar voltaics for at least 6-8 hours; that’s a pretty large supply to store.

I can easily think of two possible ways to store this energy:

1. Hydraulically—Use the electricity to pump water up to the front of a dam, and release it, when it is needed, through turbines to drive electric generators (i.e., hydroelectric power.) The problem with this approach is that there aren’t enough dams available to make this approach more than a “drop in the bucket.”

2. Chemically—This is where we need to go. Use the electricity to “charge large batteries” and discharge them when we need it.

From an energy perspective, we are developing batteries for two purposes. To power hybrid-electric, or all-electric cars and to store alternative energy supplies. We’re not ready for either of these applications yet, but we’re working on it. When we are ready, will we need technicians? And where will they come from?

In the March 2, 2009 edition of Newsweek, there is an article on the future of batteries, entitled “To Pack a Real Punch”, which is an interview with Alex Molinaroli, the president of Power Solutions at Johnson Control. Molinaroli says that batteries are the key to our energy future, “You have to match energy production with the demand. That’s easy to do when you have oil or coal in the ground that you can pile up, but you can’t do that with electricity. You have to be able to store it somehow”. Molinaroli is confident that appropriate battery technology can be developed quickly, now that the demand is evident.

If we can practically develop very large battery systems, then we can use “solar parks”; if not, we’ll have to generate and store solar energy “one building at a time”.

Today, the leading technology in battery development is in lithium-ion batteries; the technology is concentrated in Korea and Japan, and some in China. This development has been driven by the needs in electric car development. Other materials for batteries are also being investigated to reduce cost, charging/recharging time and weight/volume. New breakthroughs in battery technology are likely, and they could emerge in the U.S.

The urgency for U.S. battery technology development has emerged rapidly in recent months. We can still be first in this race (and we need to be). But if we want to keep the products from this new technology in the U.S. we will have to prepare for this race—and part of this preparation is to have the appropriate technical workforce to support it.

What areas of technical education are best suited for preparing the workforce in battery development and production? What are the knowledge and skills required for cutting-edge workers in this field? A few weeks ago, I wrote a few blogs about the potential for optics and electro-optics in solar voltaic development, production and use. Battery storage of solar energy will also be critical.

As technical educators we need to think “outside the box” as we anticipate the knowledge and skills for techs in emerging fields such as solar voltaics. From OP-TEC’s view, we are interested in solar voltaics because of the skills required in optics and electro-optics. But Solar Voltaic Techs (if there are to be such workers) will probably need a combination of knowledge/skills that include optics & electro-optics; but also may include technologies related to new batteries—and possibly other technologies.

Labels: batteries, renewable energy, green energy, solar energy, solar voltaics, optics, photonics, technicians

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Good idea.
How aboout the cost of the batteries needed? I think the solar cells are quite expensive already.