Two weeks ago the International Panel on Climate Change released its latest report on global warming, and, as predicted, the news isn’t good. The entire report is available online at www.ipcc.ch , but basically the scientists are predicting rougher storms, unpredictable weather, rising sea levels, increased drought and desertification, substantial loss of polar and glacial ice, and all the fun stuff you’d expect when you crank up the global thermostat.
The good news is that the answer to global warming is not as far away as you might imagine, and could one day allow us to do away with fossil fuels almost entirely.
It won’t be hydrogen — too difficult and expensive to produce, too challenging to safely store.
It won’t be biofuels — farming is too fossil fuel dependent for this option to ever make economic sense other than as an agricultural subsidy, and it could never realistically do more than reduce fuel consumption by five to 10 per cent.
It won’t be natural gas or propane, both limited resources and greenhouse gas producers.
In fact it’s not going to be any kind of combustible liquid, gas or solid.
The only reason we use fossil fuels to begin with is that it’s relatively easy to unleash the stored energy inside — a controlled flame to heat our water and air, or a series of explosions inside our engine blocks.
Those days of fossil fuel dependency are numbered. In about five years, if Discover Magazine is correct, the first ultracapacitor batteries will likely become available for consumer use.
The problem with conventional batteries is that they’re not very good at storing energy — even the best Lithium Ion and Nickel-Metal hydride batteries available today are relatively inefficient. It takes hours of charging to get a few hours of performance, and energy is lost in the recharging process and by the fact that battery capacity diminishes over time.
Enter a group of scientists at MIT led by Joel Schindall, who developed an ultracapacitor last year that uses carbon nanotubes to store electrons. These ultracapacitors can be recharged almost instantly, and can conceivably hold about 20 times as much energy as a conventional battery. You’d be able to charge a laptop in under a minute, and your cell phone in seconds. After a few more years of research and development, you just might be able to charge the batteries of your electric car in about 10 minutes.
And if you think the idea of electric cars sounds lame, you’ve obviously never heard of Tesla Motors ( www.teslamotors.com ), which has produced a line of stylish, high performance electric cars that can go from zero to 80 km/h in about four seconds. A charge lasts for about four hours or 250 miles, and a recharge will cost about one cent per mile — the equivalent of 135 miles per gallon of fuel.