A big breakthrough in battery technology is needed if the fossil-fuel age is going to end, and it looks like somebody has cracked it.
In days of old, I was a parcel deliveryman. For eight very long years I bolted around the Melbourne CBD in a caffeine-fueled fluster, shoulder-length hair billowing as I chased down toner cartridges. I, the Toner Tornado.
Eventually, the stress of the hunt made a dog’s breakfast of my nerves, and I turned to radio for succor. The popular stations seemed to be geared only for acid parties, drag racing events and lining their own pockets, so I cuddled up to the commercial-free ABC, Australia’s equivalent of the BBC.
There I discovered Radio National, the station devoted to the preoccupations of what an eminent Australian socialite once referred to as "the chattering classes." With me as a listener, their audience boomed into double figures. Riding high upon those medicinal airwaves I unexpectedly encountered Philip Adams, an Aussie legend with a background chock-a-block full of un-Australian activities.
Philip was the commie who prospered in the uber-capitalist advertising industry, the delegate to the Australian Council of Trade Unions who turned up to meetings in a Ferrari, the lower-class school-leaver who promoted native Australian arts culture, founded the Anti-Football League and fought for universal and free education and the rights of the indigenous, women, gays and the environment. He was also the traveller who collected rare Egyptian, Greek and Roman antiquities.
Where, exactly, did he find the time?
His show was a magazine program called Late Night Live, and in my desperate state I guzzled it like mother’s milk, tuning out the traffic and the toner, happily entangling myself in the barbed humor as he and Christopher Hitchens banged on about Teresa and Clinton, Gandhi and Kissinger--the deified mortals who so got their goat.
I’m afraid I left many a PA tapping their toes by dormant photocopiers while I chortled away in my van unwilling to detach myself from the drip. Once I’d found the cure, I wasn’t about to put my health second to anybody or anything.
Thanks to an Aussie mate, I recently re-discovered Late Night Live on iTunes and found Philip still going strong - older and wheezier and with a lazy delivery I assume to be the remnant of a stroke, but still the same contrarian frustrater of popular opinion and assumption he always was.
That night, he was having a go at lithium-ion batteries. Together with Steve Levine, a writer on geopolitics and technology, Philip explored the idea that lithium is poised to become the new petrol. It isn’t. The batteries are too heavy and over time they lose their capacity to retain a charge.
But recently a researcher named May Le Thai at the University of California discovered by accident that the addition of a cheap plexiglass-like gel to a hitherto fragile technology called Nanowires allows the manufacture of batteries which can be run through at least 200,000 cycles while retaining 100 percent of their capacity. Lithium-ion batteries, by contrast, typically last only 7000 cycles.
So, there it is.
Now, these days I tend to be sceptical about breakthrough technologies. I’m a tad embarrassed to admit that I got all pumped up about TerraPower, Bill Gates’s vision for putting nuclear waste to good use. That one’s a long way off, as other ‘breakthroughs’ have turned out to be (where is ethanol made from algae?) But this incarnation of nanowire tech has the makings of a winner.
Cheers, Philip, once again, for the medicine. Things were getting rough around here.