Battery Plants

Saw a friend yesterday whose water business took a tumble thanks to the plague shutting down business offices in our small burg. And though that sounds like the plot for another episode of ‘Your Dystopia,’ he said things were looking up, thanks to a new battery plant opening up outside of an even smaller burg a half hour away. Fossil fuels are not ending, but largely over, we agreed. Electric vehicles are very much the present, I may have said, sitting in a late-model guzzler. My water friend went back to his not-so-late model pickup, but the battery plants hung in the air a little longer, walled gardens of Babylon, with added strife and wi-fi.

What if battery plants were literal? Plants are already perfect energy storage dynamos – we just don’t know how they do it. We understand, but it’s still largely alchemical to us. I looked it up:

Imagine if farmers could grow batteries in their fields. Researchers are taking steps towards at least partially making that green dream a reality by using plant materials to make key components of energy storage devices. Pen-Chi Chiang and colleagues at the National Taiwan University review developments in this adventurous ambition in the journal Materials Today Energy.

“We consider the state-of-the-art challenges and issues for using plant-derived biomass materials for various energy storage applications, such as batteries and supercapacitors,” says Chiang.

Energy storage is an essential requirement for modern life. Without it, we couldn’t have cellphones, laptops, or electric vehicles. From consumer electronics to transportation, electrical energy must be stored and be available at the flick of a switch. Current systems, such as the lithium-ion batteries common in many devices, are made from limited resources, and bring environmental problems associated with their disposal.

Chiang points out that a sustainable future will increasingly depend on replacing existing technologies with those using renewable materials that can readily be recycled without damaging the environment.

One of the most promising approaches towards sustainable energy storage devices is to convert plant biomass into a material called “porous carbon”. This is a form of carbon that can be fabricated into three-dimensional ordered “nanostructures” with a variety of useful electrochemical properties.

I guess nanostructures are going to be our best tickets to being able to produce the capacities of plant lignin. It’s the inverse of why biomass is so hard to breakdown, in efforts tap its energy by making fuel. Seems a folly when you think about it like that. Instead of making fuel, figure how they work as batteries – which we seem to already grasp.

As is so often the case, a matter of which word we emphasize. Thinking big does not have to only mean going to Mars. Maybe if ‘Native American’ were two of the words represented by NASA, we might have already figured this out, not to mention a few other things.

Climate Change as Metaphor

Overlapping metaphor, that is. This op-ed by the president of Emory University puts a bit of point onto the identifier as a term for what’s happening in the university. Though we can take it plenty further, it’s not a bad place to start.

Historically, watershed moments such as this have pushed universities to restructure everything from basic research to how and where our undergraduates live. This time, rather than being reactive, we should pause to ask careful questions about how best to move toward a transformation of our own choosing.

This time, our investment should include commitments that will return us to the transporting promise of the liberal arts — freeing all of us, teachers and learners alike, from the limitations of our self-centered perspectives; enabling us to understand the world from others’ viewpoints; and empowering us to be agents of societal change. We must affirm that education is as much about insight as it is about gaining information or job training; it is about the duty to listen as well as the responsibility to speak out, about the pursuit of wisdom as well as knowledge. We should understand that the study and practice of ethics must find a home in our graduate schools of business and medicine just as it does in our liberal arts colleges.

Maybe we can think of it as coming in from the cold of merely satifying the conflicting human needs for vengeance, justice and profit, having one of these always lose out and, over time, becoming greatly accepting of this outcome. As unseemly as it might be to posit the spiritual aspects of living better at a more reasonable scale, what the hell else are we actually talking about?

Up to now, our chief insights have been on the order of ‘might making right’ and other laws of a self-fulfilling jungle, whelmed periodically only by ferocious demands for social justice and, as seems to be the case now, imminent resource scarcity. Call them cataclysmic corrections as we might, but these opportunities that crop up in our haste to otherwise prevail (upon nature, each other, time, space) are nothing more, and thankfully nothing less, than a ticket to our once and preternatural state – the only place where the things we actually want are actually within reach: a return to uncertainty.

I’m sure a lot of this is buried somewhere deep inside the Report to Greco. So, you can look it up.