How a new battery revolution will change your life – by David J. Unger (Christian Science Monitor – August 30, 2015)

A new generation of super cells promises to reshape the future of energy.

CAMBRIDGE, MASS.; AND ARGONNE, ILL. — It’s probably safe to say that freshman chemistry rarely ranks among college students’ most memorable courses. An overcrowded lecture hall teems with 18-year-olds with chins propped on palms. Eyelids droop at the mere mention of Planck’s constant or Bohr’s model of hydrogen. Yawns abound.

So when Donald Sadoway began teaching introductory chemistry at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge in 1995, he wanted to liven things up. Sure, he still lectured on the properties of atomic arrangements in crystalline and amorphous solids, but he did it an unusual way: He peppered his presentations with chemistry jokes only an MIT undergrad would understand and wove literature and art into the rigid lines and squares of the periodic table.

A lifelong music lover, Dr. Sadoway paired each lecture with a relevant tune. He’d play Handel’s “Water Music” in a lecture on hydrogen bonding and Aretha Franklin’s “Chain of Fools” in a class on polymers. For DNA – that famous double-helix spiral – he’d play Hank Ballard’s version of “The Twist.”

Get it?

These days, Sadoway’s interests lie in another seemingly yawn-worthy subject: batteries. And he knows exactly what song to pair it with: John Lennon’s 1971 protest anthem “Power to the People.”

“I view the whole battery enterprise as very socially conscious,” says Sadoway, who has started his own battery company with the hope of changing the world’s energy future. “It would represent a major step in bringing electricity to those who don’t have reliable access to electricity now. And for those of us that do have reliable access, it would democratize the generation of electricity.”

It’s a dramatic endorsement for a technology most people think about only when their smartphone goes dark or their smoke alarm beeps incessantly. But Sadoway isn’t alone in trumpeting energy storage as a missing link to a cleaner, more efficient, and more equitable energy future.

Scientists and engineers have long believed in the promise of batteries to change the world. Now – finally – energy storage is beginning to live up to the hype. Advanced batteries are moving out of the lab and into “gigafactories.” They’re scaling up from smartphones and into smartgrids. They’re moving out of niche markets and creeping into the mainstream, signaling a tipping point for forward-looking technologies such as electric cars and rooftop solar panels.

The ubiquitous battery has already come a long way, of course. It is why we can carry more computing power in our pocket than what it took to put a man on the moon. It is why we text, take selfies, and tap on our phones on the bus or at the dinner table. The battery – specifically today’s lithium-ion battery – enables tweets from the front lines of war and police videos that stir protests.

For better or worse, batteries make possible our mobile-first lifestyles, our screen culture, our increasingly globalized and hyperconnected world. Across the planet, billions pore over glowing screens, totally untethered and free to roam as they please.

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