Human

Dr. Frankenstein and the limits of batteries

 By Francesco Gattei

From the article “The New Frankenstein and the Limits of Batteries” by We World Energy magazine n.41

The magic of electricity has animated scientific and literary fantasies since time immemorial, but the ambition to replace fossil fuels clashes with the intermittency of renewables and the weakness of storage systems…

“It could work…! It… could… work!!” Dr. Frederick’s experiment in Young Frankenstein, the loose reinterpretation of Mary Shelley’s novel, is a symbol of the extraordinary saving capacity of electricity. Mary Shelley, just 19 years old, had been fascinated by the studies and experiments that were proliferating throughout Europe around a phenomenon known since the time of the Greeks. The fact that a natural flow of electricity exists was also known to Thales of Miletus and the early philosophers who gave the name Elektron to amber, given the properties of this resin to electrify and attract other materials when rubbed. But capturing and using this flow was another matter altogether. Centuries passed. After the kite races in thunderstorms of Benjamin Franklin, an eclectic inventor of bifocal lenses, fins, daylight saving time and, in his spare time, a founding father of the United States of America, attention shifted from the electricity of lightning to that of animals. But no-one could understand what this flow was and, above all, what it was for. For several decades, the University of Bologna was the MIT of its time. Galvani’s frogs were the first step for experiments that became ever more gruesome. Convinced that life was an electrical fluid, some scholars began to electrify corpses with the idea that they could be resurrected. Galvani’s nephew, Giovanni Aldini, transformed the experiments into a spectacle.

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Giovanni Aldini, known above all for having inspired the character of Victor Frankenstein to Mary Shelley, dedicated himself to the study of medical applications of electricity (GM blog)

The difficulties in finding bodies intact from the neck up during the French Revolution saw him emigrate to London, where he terrified viewers who saw serial killers reopen their eyes or their bodies convulsing. Sometimes the shock was such that, as well as the deceased-guinea pig, which unfortunately, or fortunately, did not survive once the electrical stimulus was turned off, some poor spectators, unable to withstand the spectacle, also succumbed.

Prometheus between electric and magnetic fields

But let’s get back to Mary Shelley. In June 1816, the future Mrs. Shelley was at Villa Diodati, near Geneva, in the stimulating company of Lord Byron, Percy Shelley and Dr. John Polidori. As in all respectful ghost stories, it was a dark and stormy night in the colder summer of the past. 1816 was “the year with no summer” due to the effects of ash from the eruption of the Tambora volcano in Indonesia, which altered the cycle of the seasons. Aldini’s experiments definitely came to the young writer’s mind when she decided to breathe literary life into Frankenstein, the modern Prometheus. Less clear is the inspiration for the second “monster” born that evening, the vampire of Dr. Polidori, as part of the then-popular trend of Gothic stories.  However, the true nature and the great potential of electrical flow continued to remain obscure, even to the literary guests at Villa Diodati, and it took another 100 years to fully understand them. Lightning or dancing corpses were not the expression of a vital fluid, but demonstrated the capacity of matter to exchange electrons. Under certain conditions, negatively-charged materials with excess electrons and positively-charged materials with a lack of electrons exchange these tiny particles, generating an electric field. The variation of this field in turn also generates a magnetic one in a twinning between electricity and magnetism that clearly explains why hair or certain tissues suddenly rise and attract small metallic objects. The experiments of Michael Faraday, in the mid-1800s, attested to this close relationship, demonstrating the basis of all the alternators, dynamos and engines that we use today to convert mechanical energy produced by the wind, fossil fuels and water, via a magnet, into electricity. “It could work…!” Like 200 years ago, today’s electricity requirements are enormous. New Frederick Frankensteins aspire to revolutionize the world of energy by almost completely electrifying consumption and expanding the role of renewable sources to cover all of electricity generation. It is an ambitious experiment that must overcome two challenges to its success:

  • the electrification of end consumption;
  • the establishment of continuity in the production of wind and solar power.

There is also only one keystone to success, as we will see below. Let’s focus on the first challenge: electrifying demand means freeing consumption from the combustion process. Breaking the bonds of molecules with combustion, releasing energy in the form of heat or light, is the primary form of consumption on which the ancient world was built, with wood and natural biomass, and the modern one, with fossil fuels. Today the combustion of fossil molecules covers 80 percent of primary energy consumption. This consumption includes not only end uses but also what happens upstream to generate energy, the process losses, and energy transportation. Another 10 percent of end consumption consists of the combustion of biomass in the poorest countries, a polluting and dangerous hangover from the pre-industrialized world. The remainder of energy consumption is all the electricity not produced by the fossil combustion, i.e., power taken from nuclear fission, the fall of water, geothermics and a liminal proportion, only 1 percent, from the sun and the wind.

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Between 1827 and 1860 at the Royal Institution in London, Michael Faraday supported a series of nineteen conferences on Christmas Day dedicated to children and young people, a tradition that continues today (Alexander Blaikley, Wikimedia)

A revolution led by the electron

 In short, today’s ratio between molecules and electrons in total energy consumption is 9:1. But what happens downstream, at the level of end consumption? In the detail of the various methods of end use, molecules now generate:

  • 99 percent of ground, sea and air transportation requirements;
  • 100 percent of consumption related to construction work or industrial feedstock, e.g., gasoline in the petrochemical industry;
  • 60 to 65 percent of domestic and industrial use, with the remaining proportion electrified.

Not only many final uses directly provide for combustion, but also a large part of electricity (80 percent) is produced by burning fossil fuels. It should be remembered that electricity is a secondary source of energy, i.e., it is generated by other sources. The technological challenge to achieve full electrification, therefore, lies in the transformation of the instruments we use. In fact, the value of energy is nothing more than the ability to carry out actions such as the transportation of people or things, heating, lighting, communications, building new objects and materials. And doing it as efficiently as possible, when we want, and with minimal impact on the environment. Each action has different energy requirements for durability and intensity and can be realized only with the tools that technology offers us. The energy revolution is therefore actually a technological revolution that allows us to perform the same gestures or new actions with instruments other than those we have used to date. If we look at the technological revolution and the challenge between electrons and molecules in end uses, so many important changes have occurred in the last century. In the richest countries today, there is no gas, oil or whale blubber lighting for homes or the streets, nor the use of candles, apart from romantic settings, or fire. Homes can also be heated using electricity. Electric kettles and ovens, induction cookers or microwaves confirm that electrons can be a good ingredient in the kitchen. There are still pockets of resistance, as pizza still requires a wood-fired oven, but the change is already well on the way. A further area of consumption where electrons have won by far over molecules is communications: TV, telephones, and radios are definitely more versatile than smoke signals or fires. In the Oresteia, the fall of Troy is announced by a sequence of torches along the slopes of the mountains… clearly, a tennis match cannot be followed this way. In their extraordinary marathon, electrons have also replaced other sources such as human muscles in domestic fatigue, the washing machine, dishwasher, and vacuum cleaner, for examples. And they are the leaders in the cold cycle, refrigerators and air conditioners, where molecules don’t work. Finally, electric motors are now widespread in an industry where for centuries men, animals and molecules have been the dominant source. But when we reach the total calculation of the end uses of energy, only 20 percent of consumption is now covered by electricity. The rate of consumption electrification in 1970 was 10 percent. In 50 years, the electrification of final consumption has progressed at an annual average of 0.2 percent. We are far away from the dimensions and rate of a rapid transformation.

Grandma Duck and the watermelon question

The most obvious gap is in transportation, today almost entirely the prerogative of the combustion of fossil fuels. In urban transport, the first attempt at a move from molecules to electrons had already happened a century ago, but after an initial advantage, easier ignition, the journey similar to alternative cars and greater cleanliness), the race was lost to subsequent technological developments in internal combustion engines. It’s amazing to think that while Elon Musk is at the technological frontier today, only 100 years ago Grandma Duck drove obsolete cars made by Detroit Electric, while other characters were driving thundering gasoline cars, a symbol of modernity and progress. The reason for fossil fuel domination in transportation is a question of energy density, the amount of energy contained per unit of weight or mass. Transporting means moving people and goods, an engine, the bodywork, and a certain amount of stored fuel. This is what has resulted in the success of fossil fuels. Fossil fuels have a density of 35 megajoules per kilo (MJ/kg) for coal or 45 MJ/kg for gasoline. Batteries, the form in which electricity is stored, have a density of 0.5-0.7 MJ/kg. In short, in order to carry the same amount of electrical energy, a weight 100 times greater is required than when using fossil fuels. This is why we do not fly or float with electric motors, and the reason why electric cars weigh 20 to 30 percent more than their standard competitors and can only guarantee a journey 70 to 80 percent shorter. It is as if we were deciding to go for a walk in the mountains and we had to choose as a refreshing snack either a watermelon, today’s batteries, or an energizing chocolate bar, the tank of gasoline. With the first option, the walk would ­­­­­inevitably be shorter. As long as the energy density of batteries is not increased, the use of electric cars will remain limited to commuting, requiring short journeys and frequent recharging. Further limits to electrical consumption are made in industrial processes at very high temperatures or in those exploiting the molecular components of the fuel to produce materials such as petrochemicals. Of this consumption, 30 percent of the total, it is impossible to change to electrons.

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Elon Musk and his Tesla electric car model S (Maurizio Pesce, flickr)

A warm-blooded world in fear of the clouds

The second challenge is intermittency. A switch, the gas pedal or a keystroke provides us with the amount of energy that we need when we need it. For intermittent sources, solar and wind power, suitable environmental conditions are required to produce the energy needed. We cannot, therefore, decide when we can consume, as the weather dictates the times and quantities available. Today, intermittent sources have an average operating level of 20-25 percent. In a fully-wind- or solar-powered world, more than two-thirds of the times we would click a switch, nothing would happen. Being intermittent is a bit like the life of cold-blooded animals, which have a reduced metabolism, conditioned by their external environment. If conditions are not ideal, everything slows down, from their heartbeat to their movements. And they wait for the sun to recharge. And not by chance, reptiles’ scales function as solar cells to take in heat. On the contrary, warm-blooded animals draw their stock of energy from a high metabolism. They are more complex, the feeding of a sophisticated brain is incompatible with a cold-blooded system and it can perform actions in less favorable climatic conditions. We live in a warm-blooded world: we want to move, produce, communicate, under any conditions and at any time of day. The human brain and today’s society is too evolved and complex to slow down life when the wind drops or at night. Once again, the solution lies in storage: batteries will make a difference, increasing the availability of intermittent sources and making it compatible with the perennial need of a warm-blooded world.  In conclusion, the modern Dr. Frankensteins’ “it could work” can wait. We need to expand the energy density of batteries 100-fold to be able to dream of widespread electrification and to provide continuity for intermittent sources. Human ingenuity will also overcome these challenges, but the technological route has its moment, its progression and its failures. It has taken more than 2,000 years to understand electricity. It has been less than 200 years that we have been generating and using it. In a few decades, we will have to invest in it to learn how to store it efficiently.

about the author
Francesco Gattei