We often don’t realize how dependent we are on electricity until we lose it, such as in the wake of 2017’s devastating hurricanes.
Obtaining, storing and using power are engineering challenges being tackled by ambitious research and development departments across the world. Major trends in this research include smart grids, large-capacity batteries, nanowire batteries and wireless power transfer.
The nature of electricity usage is changing dramatically, especially on a consumer level. In the past, consumers relied on their local power company to provide electricity for a few dozen devices in static locations. Now, consumers have an increasing number of options to generate their own power (the surplus of which they can sell), coinciding with a vast number of power-hungry devices, including fully electric cars.
The delivery infrastructure for all this electricity needs to change, too. In the U.S., the Department of Energy’s smart grid project seeks to improve the existing national grid by placing smart devices throughout the network, right up to customers’ offices, homes and factories. The data from this smart grid allows a much greater degree of control, predicting surges in usage, managing multiple power generation sources and instantly identifying outages.
One of the deepest structural problems in the national grid is that electricity is so difficult to store at scale. It’s a problem that becomes even more pressing as the world moves to renewable power sources, such as wind and solar. These sources produce power when the wind blows or the sun shines, but thats not necessarily when demand is at its highest.
In response, many regions are adding storage to their grid, with California pushing to have 1.3 gigawatts of storage by 2020. Currently, most of the battery technology is lithium ion, which is more suited to smartphones than projects of this scale. But researchers are chasing the next big breakthrough, with the redox flow battery, the most likely candidate to replace lithium ion.
Lithium ion will probably continue to be the battery technology in your pocket for the next decade, but even with that technology there is room for improvement. One of the big issues is durability – a standard lithium-ion battery simply stops working after a few thousand charges.
There has been a recent breakthrough, however, in nanowire batteries. Using gold nanowires encased in an electrolyte gel, these batteries can be recharged an incredible 200,000 times without any loss in functionality or capacity. Getting this technology into production is another matter. The researcher behind it doesnt expect to see mass-market nanowire batteries for at least three years, but it promises to transform power storage.
Wireless Power Transfer
One alternative to batteries, especially for small Internet of Things (IoT) devices, is wireless charging. This option is already familiar to many smartphone owners, who no longer have to worry about the charging port being damaged through wear and tear. Now, the challenge for engineers is to extend the range and capacity, so that a greater variety of devices can be powered this way.
Electric cars will soon have wireless charging as standard. Instead of large charging docks, which are subject to vandalism, drivers can simply park on a charging spot without needing to plug in. Soon, it may even be possible to charge your electric vehicle while it’s moving.
In our increasingly digital world, having no electricity is a disaster. Whether it’s a blackout in your city or your smartphone running out of juice, loss of power can ruin things for both individuals and businesses. Hopefully these trends will lead us towards a future where the lights never go out unexpectedly.