Think of this as Volume 17, Number 9 of A-Clue.com, the online newsletter I've written since 1997. Enjoy.
Change can be slow, and change can be sudden.
Those who practice the theory of “oh noes,” the idea that it's all about to go pear-shaped, either see slow change that can't be undone, or a sudden change that others see as unlikely.
The people I meet on Seekingalpha.com, the ones who are certain that we're about to go into another Great Depression, believe in sudden change. Those who talk about climate change tend to see slow change that can't be undone.
But most of the time, disaster does not strike. And sudden change can be good as well as bad.
This is one of the great things about being a science reporter, the idea that someone, somewhere, might suddenly come up with a mighty idea, one that will drive out big problems at a stroke.
Kaner has drawn a fierce little cadre of graduate students to him, one of whom is named Maher El-Kady. (Left, from UCLA.) A native of Egypt, and a doctoral candidate, he was working with graphene, a form of carbon I'd describe as a carbon nanotube laid on its side. It's a single atom thick, but its lattice structure makes it a great superconductor. The two British scientists who discovered it were given the 2010 Nobel Prize in Physics for their discovery.
Lots of people are working with graphene.
The James Tour Lab at Rice, my old alma mater, has created a hybrid of graphene and nanotubes (they're known on campus as Buckytubes, and are closely related to the Buckyball for which two Rice scientists got the 1996 Chemistry Nobel). Dr. Tour explained that the lab created graphene on a copper substrate, then grew nanotubes on top of the graphene.
Now back to UCLA. Copper is inexpensive, but could you create graphene with some other substrate? El-Kady found he could, very easily. He laid down a film of cheap graphite oxide onto a DVD. Then he placed the DVD onto the bed of a cheap LightScribe DVD burner. Instead of etching 1s and 0s onto tin foil, as it would do in making a standard DVD, he was able to get the burder to create small squares of pure graphene. These squares could then be cut out and turned into the bread of an electronic sandwich acting as a super-capacitor, capable of handling far more electricity than anything else known to man.
Cool. A great solution for low-power devices. Capacitors charge much more quickly than batteries, so these cheap DVD-made capacitors would be perfect for phones, a power source that might last as long as the phone itself without re-charging. Or they could be made part of a mote or sensor, so that the Internet of Things has long-lasting power.
Trouble is, how do you scale that up? Simple. You combine the two techniques. You build graphene on cheap substrate, from graphite oxide, as UCLA did, then you tease out nanotubes as Rice did, and now you have a dirt cheap material with a surface area of over 2,000 square meters per gram, a graphene super-capacitor that can hold an enormous amount of electricity for its weight.
That's what you need to replace the lithium-ion batteries on the Boeing Dreamliner. That's what you need to replace the lithium-ion batteries in Tesla motorcars. That's what you need to store the enormous amounts of solar power that grid isn't using today.
The only delays in getting this to market are financial. Research labs like those of UCLA and Rice exist to commercialize their discoveries, to license the patents their researchers come up with. You have two seperate, but related inventions here, each worth a fortune to one company, if they're licensed that way. Or you have one huge invention that could change the world, and quite quickly, if it's licensed broadly, without exclusivity. The question for both schools is whether they can make more money treating their inventions as “intellectual property” or as scientific discovery for the good of all.
The answer to that is obvious. But getting the universities to see that is going to be very difficult. It's going to take some public pressure to get non-exclusive licensing, essentially an industry standard like WiFi rather than a patented monopoly like Lipitor.
And this is where we get back to the nature of change. It can be fast, or it can be slow. It can be negative, or it can be positive. But it can also be slowed-down or sped up by how we treat discovery, as public policy. And how those who control such discoveries choose to treat it.
What this all tells me is that the intractable problem of energy storage, for electric cars, for phones, and for solar abundance has been solved. The only question becomes how quickly we can get it to market, and at what cost in terms of dollars and principles.