Humans seem bent on defying the limits of nature; we do this by surpassing the limits of our current technology. In the process of technological innovation, there seem to be certain kinds of limitations that itch at us like no others—these are the bottlenecks, the fundamental problems that stubbornly block advancement in numerous fields. If you have ever been betrayed by your cellphone battery just when it mattered most, or taunted by your laptop’s “low battery” signal when there was no outlet in sight, then you, too, have been trapped in one such bottleneck—the limitations of energy storage. These small annoyances are our personal experiences of a much larger problem. Energy storage is a major stumbling block in some of our most profound undertakings, from space exploration to modern warfare and the development of a green economy.
In recent years, steady progress has been made in overcoming a number of other technological obstacles. In computing, for example, the storage limit capacity of hard drives and thumb drives have grown steadily larger at a cheaper cost. And yet, despite attracting a small army of scientists and investors, the quest to build a better battery continues to frustrate us—but perhaps not for long. There are now indications that the answers to our energy storage problems are just around the corner. Instead of a major breakthrough, we are beginning to witness a number of small but ingenious innovations that promise to chip away at the limits of energy storage piece by piece.
Your Body is the Battery
When engaged in vigorous activity, such as running at top speed, humans can produce up to 2000 watts of energy. In the past, much of this energy was wasted as heat, but now scientists are developing methods of capturing the heat we produce and reusing it as an energy source. In the future this kind of heat-capturing technology could constitute a major breakthrough for mobile devices.
Cities Powered by Batteries
Currently, power demanded from urban grids is produced and consumed instantaneously. At peak times of power usage, this can lead to costly, potentially dangerous power outages. In response, several American and European companies are developing giant batteries to store this energy and thus reduce pressure at peak usage times. This innovation could drastically alter the electric power industry and lead to more stable, efficient urban grids.
Wi-Fi Signals Replace Batteries
Researchers at the University of Washington have developed a way of harnessing Wi-Fi signals to provide energy for the performance of minor tasks, such as sending text messages from a powerless cellphone. This technology may be used to power censors and alarms, and perhaps even some features of the “smart house” of the future. Like the body heat example above, the use of Wi-Fi signals is another ingenious way of harnessing power from existing sources.
Renewable Energy + Battery
One of the great challenges facing developers of green energy sources is the ability to produce enough power on a consistent basis to replace traditional “dirty” sources. Isolated bursts of energy cannot keep machines in constant operation—unless you can connect your renewable energy source to a battery. Scientists around the world are racing to produce batteries capable of storage on this scale, and we are already beginning to see the results. In August, a battery capable of storing 10,000 times more energy than an iPad battery was connected to a power grid in the Orkney Islands, Scotland. Batteries that can effectively store power generated from wind and solar energy will likely be one of the key turning points in the popularization of these technologies, and the eventual greening of the global economy.
But Don’t Hold Your Breath
Only time will tell if these innovations are truly as revolutionary as they appear. In the meantime, we already have access to technologies that can help us to be smarter about power usage, including several new mobile apps. We at Kdan Mobile are constantly pioneering solutions for green initiatives. Until there is a major breakthrough, let our app, Battery Life Pro, help you to better manage the battery status of your gadget so that you can avoid being caught unawares by a dead iPhone or iPad.
Image Source: C. Clark, NOAA Photo Library, NOAA Central Library; OAR/ERL/National Severe Storms Laboratory (NSSL), Image ID: nssl0010