Tuesday, November 22, 2005

The Lithium Economy

Something the Engineer-Poet could no doubt sink his teeth into: Kevin Bullis at MIT Technology Review interviews Donald Sadoway of MIT. Sadoway thinks the hydrogen economy is a crock:
I don't believe in fuel cells for portable power. I think it's a dumb idea. The good news is: they burn hydrogen with oxygen to produce electricity, and only water vapor is the byproduct. The bad news is: you have to deal with molecular hydrogen gas, and that's what's stymieing the research and in my opinion is always going to stymie the research.

That's why I don't work on fuel cells. Where's the infrastructure? Where are we going to get hydrogen from? Hydrogen is a molecule, it's H2. To break it apart, to get H+, you've got to go from H2 to H, and that covalent bond is very strong. To break that bond you have to catalyze the reaction, and guess what the catalyst is? It's noble metals -- platinum and palladium. Have you seen the price of platinum? Lithium [for lithium ion batteries] is expensive. But it's not like platinum. Lithium right now is probably $40 a pound. Platinum is $500 an ounce. If I could give the fuel-cell guys platinum for $40 a pound, they would be carrying me around on their shoulders until the day I die.

So what's to replace it? Batteries!
TR: How good can batteries get?

DS: I think we could easily double [the energy capacity of] what we have right now. We have cells in the lab that, if you run the numbers for a thin-film cell of reasonable size, you end up with two to three times current lithium ion [batteries].

But there's more. The fantasy of all fantasies is chromium. If we could stabilize chromium [as a material for battery cathodes] and I could...give you a battery with 600–700 watts per kilogram [of energy capacity] with reasonable drain rate, that says good-bye hydrogen economy.

"I want these batteries so cheap you can give them away," he says, and they'd have to be for what he wants them to do. Interesting stuff, anyway.