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Flash news: Dr. Handwave have discovered a way to store energy, without loss, and for unlimited time.

The battery has the following characteristics:

  • Electric: Can be charged by any electric source. The more powerful the source is, the quicker the charge.
  • Safe: The battery itself is secure; no accidental discharge, overheating or other exploding is possible. If damaged, the energy stored just disappears into the ether without endangering anything.
    Storing and moving a battery is basically as safe as moving cardboard box.
    (It is still possible to put your finger in it and get a discharge, but accidentally doing that is so unlikely as to be safely ignored altogether).
  • Cheap: The materials to build it are common and cheap. Manufacture is not a real problem and only needs basic electrician tools. Anyone tinkering with electric device should already have all the tools in hand to build a little one.
  • Scalable: The process may not be applicable for the smallest device for now, but large version of it can store days of the electrical production of a power plant without issue. Smaller sizes have smaller capacities.
  • Capacity: The process somehow stores energy in its mass. A battery of 1m3 would weight 10kg empty, at full capacity, which is 50MJ, it would weight 15kg.

Dr. Handwavium is thrilled about his model, and which to disclose the how-to on the internet, free of patent or charges, hoping to jump start some sort of Golden Age for humanity.
Hopefully, you, one of the men in black, have arranged a meeting with him before he does. Your goal is not to steal the formula, just to ensure with that nice and eccentric doctor if releasing that formula really is a good idea.

Would releasing that battery's blueprint on the internet be a good idea?
Storing energy would solve a lot of current energy production problems by eliminating the need to regulate the amount generated, and transporting it in such a safe way would probably help a lot of other domain.
I fear I am forgetting some negative impact it would have on the economy at large, and societal issues.

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  • $\begingroup$ What's the energy density (joules per kilogram and joules per liter) of this thing that Dr. Handwave has invented? $\endgroup$ – John Feltz Aug 24 '16 at 23:57
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    $\begingroup$ @DrakaSAN That's 3 orders of magnitude less dense than gasoline. I don't see this as having any value. The energy it would take to ship these things would be prohibitive. $\endgroup$ – John Feltz Aug 25 '16 at 0:08
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    $\begingroup$ The energy density is very important. Until I saw that, I was thinking along the lines of the Shipstone from one of Robert Heinlein's universes. The Shipstone had remarkably high energy density. The implications? Vast. The construction of Shipstones was so incredibly important that the family that owned the secrets of how to make it virtually ruled the known galaxy. Energy storage is king. $\endgroup$ – Cort Ammon Aug 25 '16 at 0:54
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    $\begingroup$ The fact that this device can destroy energy ("If damaged, the energy stored just disappears into the ether without endangering anything") means it break the energy conservation law - I'd poke at that to look for dangerous unexpected uses/side-effects. Probably better to have the enregy "locked" in some safe form, e.g.: if damaged, the energy becomes locked inside the (now denser) 'handwavium' lattice, which is completely safe, and may later be retained by incorporating the damaged lattice in a new complete battery. $\endgroup$ – G0BLiN Oct 19 '17 at 13:25
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    $\begingroup$ Also, a way to quickly and efficiently change the weight of an object by a factor of 50% might have interesting applications to projectile weapons, aviation, and machinery... In fact, I think that a wheel with several such batteries sequentially charging each other will spin forever without any additional energy - so the perfect transformation of mass to electricity and back gives you a perpetual motion machine - which is a limitless power generator... $\endgroup$ – G0BLiN Oct 19 '17 at 13:35
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I see the complete decentralization of power generation coming from this. In short form, every house can now have its own battery.

The biggest issue in our current electrical grid is ultimately storage for peak periods. Most electricity is generated and consumed in a very small time frame. Our power usage sees several peaks through the day...particularly in the early evening as everyone returns from work. To provide power for this, most electric grids depend on firing up gas or coal plants to meet the peak period demand. It is also a harsh limitation of certain power generation types such as hydro that generates its energy at a flat rate (same during day as evening).

But now you don't need the on demand electric generation...each house can have its own battery to store energy during the low periods and supply energy during the high use periods. You basically flatten our power generation by allowing it to be stored in this manner.

This opens up the potential for homes to begin their own forms of electric generation. If you can find a way to power that battery on your house (solar, water, bicycle?, wind, geothermal, whatever) you can now do so. We would become much less dependent on 'on-demand' primarily coal power generation, so I guess you might meet a very pissed off coal lobby and some interesting commercials (coal is good, handwavium is evil).

This invention is actually the existing hold-up in alternative energy production coming to dominance.

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  • $\begingroup$ So the only downside would be a really angered fossil energy lobby? $\endgroup$ – DrakaSAN Aug 25 '16 at 0:15
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    $\begingroup$ Coal isn't on-demand power; it's baseline power. It takes a long time to start, stop, or even adjust a coal power plant. On-demand power is petroleum-based, e.g. natural gas or oil. The basic problem is that thermal-based plants have what is effectively a thermal inertia. They can adjust the rate of flow to increase power flow, but they can't reduce it back down for a long time. $\endgroup$ – Brythan Aug 25 '16 at 0:53
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    $\begingroup$ @DrakaSAN -- No, the downsides are what happens in the depth of winter when there is continuous cloud cover for a month, everyone in your region in the same energy starved condition. Or the winds are calm for a long time. Rechargeable batteries are never an energy source, just energy storage for a more convenient time. $\endgroup$ – Gary Walker Aug 26 '16 at 0:02
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Your "perfect" battery you does not seem very perfect.

A theoretical lithium air battery would have an energy density of 11.14 kWh/kg. At 5MJ/kg, your perfect battery has an energy density of 1.389 kWh / kg -- So, not even close to an ideal lithium/air battery. For comparison, gasoline is about 13 kWh/kg, and there are many losses during the process of converting gasoline to useful energy in the form of electricity or power to a drive wheel.

What we actually build today is Lithium-Ion batteries that store at about 0.56 kwh/kg. But if you consider elevated temperature storage, Lithium Thionyl Chloride batteries deliver about 1.1 kWh/kg today almost as good as your perfect battery. The best laboratory Lithium/Air batteries are 1.7 kWh/kg, but are probably 20 years away from commercial use.

So, you really don't describe a real breakthrough technology. A perfect Lithium Air battery would change the rules for some many applications, a very practical pure electric car comes to mind. Increased use of battery based electric grid balancing is also very likely. There would be smaller and more powerful portable equipment in many forms too, e.g. battery operated lawn mowers and landscaping equipment, portable refrigerators, more power tools, etc., . More homes would stop using the grid.

Get another factor of 10 over lithium air for your perfect battery and you change the rules again. Many or most homes & businesses could go off the grid relying exclusively on solar and possibly portable generators for the rare extended cloudy periods. It would even be practical in most transportation uses, including airplanes (If sufficiently fast charging was also possible). The grid would finally have a real alternative to pumped hydroelectric storage and the grid would mostly be limited to serving industrial power.

As an aside, the real short term grid balancing (up to about a minute or so) is the inertia of all the spinning metal in generators that feed the grid, so battery based balancing kicks in slower today. This would have to change if steam power cycle power generation is largely eliminated.

The weight gain of 1 kg/MJ is rather hard to explain. This is way below the E=MC^2 level. If explained by something similar to lithium air, where the additional mass is the oxygen capture from the air.

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    $\begingroup$ It's "perfect" in that it has no loss from sitting. A typical battery discharges a small amount of charge over time. About 2-8% per month for a lead acid battery. Lithium ion batteries are more efficient but still have a small discharge rate over time. $\endgroup$ – Brythan Aug 25 '16 at 3:18
  • $\begingroup$ @Brythan - you never mentioned that specifically in your description. When I read "without loss" I assumed you were referring to no loss during charge or discharge cycles (impossible of course), not a zero self-discharge rate (this is probably impossible too, though). I have read that the self-discharge rate for some lithium air batteries is near zero, though other lithium air batteries have a relatively high self-discharge rate. Lithium-Ion achieve 97% charge/discharge efficiency. Not much data on Lithium/Air efficiencies. $\endgroup$ – Gary Walker Aug 25 '16 at 4:29
  • $\begingroup$ @Brythan - actually, I found data on lithium air batteries, suggesting 99% efficiency and near zero self discharge. Lithium Air, not ready for commercial use, but much more powerful than your perfect battery and nearly as efficient. $\endgroup$ – Gary Walker Aug 25 '16 at 4:36
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It is a tank for a prototype of a 100% perfect fuel cell

This is a tank... a container. Call it a "battery" if you like but the salient fact that the energy is kept as mass more or less forces this to be regarded as a plain old tank that holds fuel.

It is quite a spacious tank compared to the energy it holds. 1 m3 (1,000 liters) to hold 5 kilogram of fuel and a measly 50 Megajoule is very poor energy density when counted on the volume. A perfectly ordinary petrol tank gets you about 34 MJ/l. 0.050 MJ/l does not really impress. Also 50 MJ is just shy of 14 kilowatt-hour, which gets you approximately 10 km/6 miles down the road in an electric a car, or 2-3 hours worth of household electricity... in a rental. This means the tank is much too big to be used in households or in vehicles.

As for energy density per weight, 50 MJ / 15 kg puts it at slightly over 3.33 MJ/kg, or if only counting the net weight change: 10 MJ/kg. Again, we are not hugely impressed.

But it is better than batteries, right?

Yes and no. It wipes the floor with batteries when it comes to energy per weight, so that is good. But when looking at energy per volume, this is laughably poor compared to batteries. This takes up huge amounts of volume, while not having very impressive storage capabilities.

So... this is useless, is it?

Not at all. That we have the technology to perfectly make fuel from electricity and the other way around is quite the advance. A 100% conversion rate between fuel and electricity is Nobel Prize winning stuff. By comparison you can convert water to hydrogen and oxygen at 50% energy efficiency, and then use that in a fuel cell at 40-60% efficiency, or 85% if you can use the waste heat. So here we have the technology to go back and forth at 100% efficiency, eliminating the previous 60% - 75% waste.

This is revolutionary

The tank itself is not at all very impressive because of it being much too spacious for the amount of energy it holds. But the fuel cell attached to it, that is a game-changer. So if we can just shrink the tank to, say, 10 l or even 100 l per 50 MJ, then this will be a great way to deal with fluctuations in energy supply and ditto demand, plus it becomes portable.

The big problem we face today with our energy distribution is that our power grid is — figuratively speaking — made of glass. It does not react well to being handled roughly, and any sharp "bumps" causes it to shatter and break.

With this "battery", wind farms, households, cars, solar photovoltiacs, industries... all of these suddenly become much "nicer" towards our fragile and sensitive power grid. In effect the power grid goes from being made of figurative glass to being made of tough plastic. This is good for us all.

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1 kilowatt hour of electricity equals 3.6 MJ, so 50 MJ equals a little less than 14 kilowatt hours.

Tesla 2012 Model S Performance hosts a 85 kWh (310 MJ) battery pack which weighs 1,200 lb (540 kg). That is a little more than 6 times as much power as your would-be shipstone, for 36 times the weight.

So you have found an energy storage material which has 6 times higher energy density than our current lithium ion technology. Which is comparable to the 5 times greater energy density between lead-acid (1859) and rechargable Lithium Ion (1970). So the good Dr. is planning to release next century's battery about 60 years early.

As @Twelfth has stated, our lack of such battery storage is actually holding up our adoption of alternative energy and is therefore a major factor in why we are moving so slowly to transition away from fossil fuels.

Tell those well dressed men to go back where they came from. There is no evil hidden here.

oh, and Dr. Handwavium Sir, if you would contact me by email, I would very much like to help in your beta testing of this wonderful new product. I'll even draft up those blueprints you want to give away, in return for a few weeks of early access to the design. Contact me! Seriously!

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Shipstones

Robert A. Heinlein wrote about this, e.g. in Friday. His batteries were called Shipstones and they'd actually ship them from places like the Sahara desert to where people would actually use them. The implication was that they were mostly solar-charged. A flashlight could be powered by a lifetime Shipstone that was charged once and never changed. You may not want to go that far.

One side effect in the book was that the Shipstone company was ridiculously influential. They were part of every sale of electricity, and electricity replaced other power methods like the internal combustion engine. Your open source version might avoid that.

Speculation

Depending on how dense the energy is, this might allow better electrical-based weapons like tasers or lasers. Tasers tend to only have one or two shots with current batteries. Lasers only work when plugged in. They aren't handguns. Multishot tasers would almost certainly work. Perhaps there'd be enough power for practical lasers. That might be better as a separate question, as you have specifics on energy density.

Each time a power plant is turned on or off (or just adjusted down), it wastes power. There's a threshold below which the fuel is just wasted. So a perfect battery actually helps every type of power generation station, as it reduces the necessity for turning the plant on or off. You only have to turn it off when the batteries are close to full or turn it on when the batteries are close to empty. Even slow-firing nuclear would be able to work on-demand with that so long as there was enough battery capacity.

Solar and wind will never be on-demand. They are supply-driven. We can't make the sun shine or the wind blow. What this does is allow a smoothing out of the supply. With sufficient battery capacity, states like the Dakotas could be self-sufficient on wind. And states like New Mexico and Arizona could be primarily solar. Those are US examples because I don't know global wind examples off hand. These batteries would effectively make solar and wind into baseline power.

Coal and nuclear still make sense as gap power. Put fuel in. Batteries fill up. Unless and until there is enough renewable capacity, they will have a role in power generation.

Petroleum-based generation will go away first. Those sources are more expensive than coal and existing nuclear if all of the generation can be used. Their chief advantage is that they are true on-demand sources. They can be both turned on quickly and adjusted in power generation. But with good enough batteries, that's unnecessary. It can take hours or even days to turn on a power plant if you know when you'll run out of stored energy.

Battery manufacture may move to equatorial regions like the Sahara. They have the solar availability to give the batteries their initial charges. Places like the Dakotas are also possible, as they have high wind capacity.

Social

There are some illegal activities that are tracked by electricity usage. For example, marijuana may be grown under sun lamps indoors. This would eliminate such tracking, as people could buy batteries and do their own transport to the actual location.

There would be job dislocations. Lower petroleum demand is bad for the Middle East and places like the Dakotas and Texas in the US. Some of that will be offset by new renewable-based jobs in wind and solar. Exact effects are somewhat indeterminate.

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