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Breezing up a fair wind

June 16, 2015
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Of all the forces of nature, I should think the wind contains the largest amount of motive power—that is, power to move things. And yet it has not, so far in the world’s history, become proportionably valuable as a motive power. It is applied extensively, and advantageously, to sail-vessels … a few windmills, and pumps. … Quite possibly one of the greatest discoveries hereafter to be made, will be the taming and harnessing of [wind].

Thus declared Abraham Lincoln in an 1860 lecture.

Lincoln would surely be delighted at the new fashion for windmills, the off-shore plantations sprouting across the globe and the more contentious ones decorating farmland like candles on a birthday cake. Although we can now generate electricity from wind efficiently, little has changed in the past 150 years, and wind power is still not as valued as, say, oil, coal, or gas. Meanwhile, the world has warmed and become far more polluted since 1860. It is high time we switched our power source from filthy fossil fuels to wind, solar, and other clean “forces of nature.”

We have still not solved that fundamental problem of taming and harnessing the wind. Fossil fuels come in highly concentrated, tangible, transportable packages that can be burned to release energy anywhere, day or night. But the wind doesn’t always blow (and never with a constant force), the sun is regularly fickle, and water vanishes in the heat.

The solution is to turn the motive power of wind into a chemical fuel—like the handy fossil-fuel packages—by using wind to charge up a battery, which could be used wherever and whenever it’s needed. But so far, the inability of battery technology to store electricity effectively has frustrated our efforts toward adopting clean power.

A recent trickle of innovations in cheaper, lighter, more efficient batteries suggests that this may be about to change. As with the 19th-century oil rush, there is a lot to play for. For example, the entire nation of Bolivia, home to most of the world’s lithium deposits, is staking its hopes on an efficient lithium-based battery.

Indeed, until recently, lithium was the frontrunner, already used in phones, laptops, electric cars, and wind turbines. But in April, scientists announced the development of an aluminium-based battery that can charge a smartphone in just one minute, is safer (lithium batteries have an unfortunate tendency to explode), more reliable and durable, cheaper, and is flexible enough to be bent into different shapes. The voltage of aluminium batteries will need to improve to match lithium, but bad news for Bolivia promises good news globally.

Aluminum batteries could be used to power vehicles, homes, and offices, and arrays of them could even power towns. The age of wind power may finally be arriving.

This column first appeared at The American Scholar.

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