TEM Image of Aerographite

Recently, I was shown this article regarding a new material being developed dubbed Aerographite. It seems to fall in the same category as aerogels where you create a network of carbon to develop a macroscale material that is very strong and very light. Aerographite is a network of woven carbon tubes that is being touted as the world’s lightest material.

What caught my eye wasn’t the specifications of the material, but the applications for it and the conclusions that people were jumping to. It reminded me of how a couple of years ago, Yi Cui developed his silicon nanotube battery anodes and everyone was claiming that devices would last 10 times longer when running on a battery. These articles, for the most part, seem to miss the fact that while these material advances seem huge on a lab scale specimen, they most likely have trouble scaling to production levels. The raw material specifications don’t take into account things like packaging when it comes to a full battery system, for example.

The aerographite article claims that the applications of this type of material are limitless and that it would revolutionize filtration systems and energy storage. The article made no mention how much of the material was produced and unfortunately I do not have access to the original paper to check this information. This is significant because of a similar material advancement in the last couple of decades. Carbon nanotubes (CNT) came into prominence in the 1990s and were seen as the solution for building a space elevator because of their tensile strength. However, CNTs ran into the issue of scalability for a project that size and we still don’t have a space elevator. It is very difficult to produce very long nanotubes and I see this aerographite as having a similar issue. While it is true that there are numerous applications, articles such as this one make it sound like those revolutions are just around the corner. 

What people must realize is that materials innovations take approximately 20 years to get from the lab to market. It is a very slow process and many of those “limitless” applications may never come to fruition. So the next time you read a similar article, appreciate the hard work the scientists have put in and the significance of the milestone, but please keep in mind that all the world’s problems are not solved and there is still a lot of work that needs to be done to get through the slow process of material innovation.

GM’s Potential

June 11, 2010

GM's Chevrolet Volt

I just ran across this article today and it disappointed me. Ever since I first heard about the details for this car, I’ve been excited about it because of its potential to usher in the EV market. The car is the perfect vehicle to transition people from gas vehicles to electric vehicles. For those of you who don’t know how the Volt works, it basically has an all-electric range of 40 miles (most people drive less than this in a day), after which the gas engine kicks in to charge the battery instead of drive the car. This differs from plug-in hybrid electric vehicles in that the gas and electric engines are in series instead of parallel. In plug-in hybrids and hybrids, the engines are parallel and the purpose of the electric engine is to offset the load on the gas engine. This vehicle allows someone to drive only on electricity for most days and then let the gas engine kick in for road trips.

So why am I disappointed? Just as GreenTech Media has also figured out, that article shows that GM isn’t taking their Volt seriously. Their argument is that the demand isn’t there and they will only increase production when demand increases but always “want to keep VOLT in a position where demand for the product is slightly greater than supply.” However, I think this is a surefire way to keep people from transitioning to EV as they will always be seen as niche products for people with disposable income. GM has the ability to produce a massive amount of Volts and lower the price so everyone can afford it, but it just becomes a question of their willingness. This is where I hope the fact that the government is a majority shareholder plays a role.

Back in the 90s, GM developed the GM EV1 electric vehicle that was the precursor of this Chevy Volt. They released only a few vehicles to conduct a pilot test in California and every driver of that vehicle loved every bit of it. Then for no reason at all, GM canceled the car and destroyed all the EV1 vehicles and went forward with their SUV/Hummer strategy. The demand was there, customers wanted it, yet GM said no. We could be driving EVs today if it wasn’t for GM saying no. I’m afraid they are going to kill the Volt in the same way. Remember, customers only want what you give them. Give them the choice of the Volt at a reasonable price and you will see that they will sell.

Looks like progress is finally being made on capping the oil well. It doesn’t seem like the cap is securely on top of the pipe yet, just covering the majority of it at the moment.

BP better hope that this process accomplishes the goal of capturing the majority of the spewing oil. Yet another failure is only going to lead to BP’s public image getting tarnished, the oil industry’s image getting tarnished, and our beloved Barack Obama’s image getting tarnished as well.

How does BP and the oil industry recover from this event? Experts agree that this never should have happened in the first place. Oil rigs sinking? There are failsafes in place to prevent things like that. It’s unfortunate that BP was the oil company who was victim of this disaster because, frankly, they are the oil company I liked the most. They seemed to be the most forward thinking company that made an attempt to diversify their assets across all forms of energy technologies. BP advertises that one of their core business functions is alternative energy, saying it right there on their organization page for job seekers. To me, any company that advertises something as one of the pillars of their business either has an amazing marketing department or actually views that area as important to their development. I’m usually a pessimist but I’m going to opt with the latter in this case.

But that was then and this spill is now. BP has to be extra vigilant and double check their math over the next few days to make sure they can contain this spill ASAP before more damage is done to their public image. It will be interesting to see how this spill affects the climate bill waiting in the Senate currently as offshore drilling was a major part of the bill in order to reel in Republicans. As a scientist, I can’t say that all offshore drilling needs to be scrapped and never thought of again just because of this one incident. If that was the case every time something major happened, then we wouldn’t have planes, we wouldn’t have ships, we wouldn’t have cars, nor would we have homes. Unfortunately, people remember big events and consider things to be more dangerous than they actually are. It’s why some people consider planes to be a more dangerous method of travel than autos. Because when a plane goes down, it becomes national news. When a car crashes, it’s only local news.

I wouldn’t be surprised if people start comparing this spill to Three Mile Island and/or Chernobyl in order to try and group offshore drilling with nuclear power. After all, nobody died in Three Mile Island (11 people died in Deepwater Horizon) and Chernobyl was operated without very many failsafes nor was it maintained very well by the Soviets. All three had some element of environmental damage, with Three Mile Island arguably being the least damaging. My hope would be that politicians don’t take this route as it would no doubt lengthen the already lengthy road ahead for the climate bill. Nuclear power is already a hot topic in the energy world. No need to make offshore drilling a hot topic as well.