Saturday, March 31, 2012

Solar Cells and Batteries Could 'Go Viral'

Investors looking to get fabulously rich may want to place a few bets on solar cell and rechargeable battery technology. At least, that's one way to frame an onstage chat between U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu and billionaire Bill Gates at a recent energy innovation conference.

A combination of breakthroughs in solar and battery technologies will allow them "to go viral in the same way that cellphones went viral not only in the developed world, but also in the developing world," Chu said at the annual summit of the Advanced Research Projects Agency - Energy.

The agency is a branch of the energy department that President Barack Obama launched in 2009 to spur innovation. The concept is to provide the short-term funding needed to push research out of the lab to something that can attract private sector investment.

One success story showcased at the summit was Envia Systems' new lithium-ion battery that has achieved an energy density of 400 watt hours per kilogram, which is nearly twice that of existing rechargeable batteries.

The breakthrough could extend the range of electric vehicles from 80 miles to 300 miles per charge as it slashes the battery cost by 50 percent. The project was spurred by a $4 million grant from ARPA-E and builds on research started at the DOE's Argonne National Laboratory in California.

Such a battery sounds fantastic for the rollout of EVs as the specter of $5 gas lurks around the corner. Applications of this type of technology could also help bring clean electricity to the 2 billion people in the developing world who live without it today.

Chu sees a marriage between cheap, efficient rechargeable batteries and cheap efficient solar cells going viral in the developing world, akin to the way cellphone technology leapfrogged traditional landline networks.

"You can bring this power to small villages to places where you can read at night, to where you can run a refrigerator where you can keep your medicines safe, to where you can run things to pump water for your irrigation," Chu said. "We see this as having huge potential worldwide."

That's the pitch Chu made onstage at the conference as he chatted alongside Microsoft chairman Bill Gates at the summit. ( is a joint venture between Microsoft and NBC.)

These days, Gates spends most of his time with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation which is primarily focused on global health initiatives. Cheap energy is essential to improving lives, he notes.

"Without advances in energy, (people) stay stuck where they are," he said, adding the caveat that the world's poor are also the most vulnerable to global climate change. That means supplying them with fossil fuel energy isn't the best way to achieve its goals.

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"The imperatives of reducing the negative impacts on those people and providing them with the things where they can raise themselves up lead you back to wanting continuing innovation in energy with the constraint of no greenhouse gas emissions," he said.

Getting that type of innovation, however, is increasingly difficult in a world where investment in energy research and development is drying up.

"It is crazy how little we're funding this energy stuff," Gates said.

One of the reasons we don't, he noted, is that the information technology revolution that made him fabulously rich has warped our minds on how quickly research and development works. Energy innovation is likely a 50- to 60-year cycle.

That kind of cycle, the Wall Street Journal notes, has limited the venture capital available to energy startups partly because investors have already made bets on clean tech companies that have yet to turn a profit. As a result, these early investors don't have money lying around to plow into new ventures.

But, spurring investment in energy innovation, Chu noted, remains paramount to making clean tech truly go viral and changing the world for the better.

"If one can get wind and solar and energy storage down to where the whole package is cost competitive with any form of energy, then it takes off and this is what we're very focused on in the Department of Energy," Chu said. "We want these things without subsidies just to take off."


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