While much of the US research establishment is pursuing the next great technological leaps forwards, it was comforting to run across one researcher, Alfred Hubler, and a great leap forward that serves as an example of where innovation really comes from. In other words, it's easy to innovate when the new ideas are themselves dependent on other yet-to-be-implemented ideas.
Many of the smart grid solutions are waiting, for example, until the other pieces of the system are put into place (which are, of course, waiting for similar reasons). Hydrogen will be a great energy source once we've built a renewable energy infrastructure that can profitably manufacture it, a transportation system that can profitably distribute it, and a storage system that can profitably store it.
The Technology Review posted an article yesterday about
A "digital quantum battery" concept proposed by a physicist at the
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign could provide a dramatic
boost in energy storage capacity–if it meets its theoretical potential
Just another great leap forward? So I thought when reading this:
The concept calls for billions of nanoscale capacitors and would rely
on quantum effects–the weird phenomena that occur at atomic size
scales–to boost energy storage.
But then I read something novel or, actually, not novel. The researcher had recognized this technology could be built using only widely available technologies and materials.
[These] digital quantum batteries could be fabricated using
existing lithographic chip-manufacturing technologies using cheap,
nontoxic materials, such as iron and tungsten, atop a silicon
substrate, he says. The resulting devices would, in principal, waste
little or no energy as they absorbed and released electrons. Hubler
says it may be possible to build a benchtop prototype in one year.
Therein lies all of the difference in the world. One year from theoretical breakthrough to prototype. That's less time than it takes science to get a paper reviewed and published. And the brilliance is that even the concept is not all that new, just new to batteries:
In some ways, the concept represents a variation on existing micro- and
nanoelectronic devices. "If you look at it from a digital electronics
perspective–it's just a flash drive," says Hubler. "If you look at it
from an electrical engineering perspective, you would say these are
miniaturized vacuum tubes like in plasma TVs. If you talk to a
physicist, this is a network of capacitors."
Is novelty a prerequisite of good scientific breakthroughs?
As I have written elsewhere, Einstein developed a theoretical framework that combined current understandings of what were previously unconnected ideas and phenomena, building on the ideas of Boltzmann, Hertz, Poincare, Mach, Planck, and others, but combining them in a way that enabled him to take what was best and leave behind the vestiges of their origins in older scientific practices and communities.
Those closest to Einstein’s discovery, the very individuals whose work Einstein recombined, Mach, Max Planck, Lorentz, Poincare, themselves never wholly embraced his work. Chance did not favor these very-prepared minds. Quite the opposite, each was too familiar with, and too committed to, what had come before to see how Einstein’s new combination could be something greater than the sum of its parts. Max Planck referred to Einstein’s theories as merely a generalization of Lorentz’ work. And Einstein once said of Mach, whose work he admitted to closely building on, “It is not improbable that Mach would have discovered the theory of relativity, if, at the time when his mind was still young and susceptible, the problem of constancy of the speed of light had been discussed among physicists.”
Of course, it's possible that the quantum battery won't work. But if we can find that out in only a year, and using existing technologies and techniques, who cares? This is what great science is made of.