Weekend Wandering: Charging Too Little? An Alternative Question to Alternative Fuel

As part of a regular section on his blog entitled Weekend Wandering, David has posed the following question:

How efficiently (or inefficiently) would your household function without batteries?

A question that may or may not be interesting to some, however it is a topic that has been playing on my mind for a long time. My response may not be strictly related to answering the question, but the web and blogging is all about tangents, so I’ll try and make some sense as we plug through a science lesson here.

My thoughts on batteries started with my reading of a controversial science fiction author Robert A. Heinlein. He was controversial for his book Stranger in a Strange land, and his stories which involved large polygamous households – somewhat against the beliefs that are largely held today and certainly were held when he wrote them in the 1960s.

Heinlein wrote a wonderful romp of a story called Friday – the title is taken from the heroine of the story who is a man-made human that is also an assassin in an Earth future created by Heinlein. In this story exists countries that are ruled by governments, and where corporations are so powerful, they can own countries as well. Friday’s boss makes reference to one powerful corporation as follows:

The Shipstone Complex is mammoth, all right, because they supply cheap power to billions of people who want cheap power and want more of it every year. But it is not a monopoly because they don’t own any power; they just package it and ship it around to wherever people want it…
[Robert A. Heinlein, Friday, 1982]

The Shipstone Complex is a corporation that sells something called shipstones. Shipstones are basically a battery of sorts… at least in our basic understanding of a battery. It stores enough energy to power ships as they travel around galaxies, for years without being recharged. I’m sure this would be something that would make our homes more efficient, and is an fictional idea that I always thought would have merit.

It makes me think that the search for alternative fuel is the wrong way of looking at the energy/environment problem. We have energy – in a number of forms… perhaps we are just looking at the wrong energy, and perhaps the wrong problem.
In order to make sense of all this, I am going to have to first address some science. I’m no scientist, so I’ll make this as simple as I can.


Scientists basically refer to two types of energy: kinetic and potential.

When we (a.k.a. laymen) talk about energy, we are more familiar with the following:

Electrical energy, for example, is the flow of charged particles called electrons or ions. When electrons are flowing through a wire or through hundreds of feet of air (an event we call lightning) it is because they are being “pushed” or forced by an electrical field. This field is caused by a difference in electrical charge. A force is exerted on the electrons and they move. Work is done on the charged particles. A force is pushing them through a distance. Actually, they are hopping from atom to atom, being pushed by an electromotive force. While the electrons are moving they contain kinetic energy. So at the itsy-bitsy atomic level electricity is a form of kinetic energy.

Mechanical energy is the useful way we sometimes refer to things like gears, engines, locomotives pulling trains, canon balls flying through the air, or other examples of energy in mechanical devices. But, of course, by now you see that all these moving parts contain kinetic energy. They are really just different modes of kinetic energy – the energy contained in a moving mass. In order to get these various objects spinning or rolling, a force has to be exerted. Work is a force acting through a distance, so the way they get moving and keep moving is by having work done on them. Work is an energy transfer process.

Chemical energy is another term we use a lot. This is more vague. We say things like, “during combustion, chemical energy is released”. Hmmm. The term chemical energy refers to energy that is stored in molecular bonds, the forces that hold molecules together. So releasing chemical energy must mean the energy is finally free from its molecular bonds. In the more general sense, of course, it is potential energy. Stored energy, or energy that is “waiting to happen”, or that has the “potential” to happen, or that can happen but hasn’t yet, is rather sensibly called potential energy.
Source: Energy Forms and Definitions,

Why is this important? Because batteries don’t store electricity as a number of us believe, but rather, they store chemicals, which are, in fact, potential energy.

Storing Energy

Now, I am currently reading a book called A Short History of Nearly Everything, by Bill Bryson (Black Swan, 2004). If you could never pay attention to science lessons, but are curious about the universe and the atoms that make us up, and practically everything in between, then I strongly recommend this book. One of the reasons that I am stuck on my reading list is because I’m reading this through for the third time.

At any rate, on page 318 it says the following:

Certainly there is no shortage of energy in the world above our heads. One thunderstorm, it has been calculated, can contain an amount of energy equivalent to four days’ use of electricity for the whole United States… At any one moment 1,800 thunderstorms are in progress around the globe – some 40,000 a day…

This is just in lightning. This is without considering solar power, wind power, and all the other unused energy in our planet that is available for use.

We are currently looking for alternate sources of energy… doesn’t it seem that we are looking at the wrong solution to the problem? Or, rather, the wrong problem?

A Possible Solution?

So, back to batteries. Batteries are chemicals that are stored, that when combined in a certain way create electrons, that eventually result in electricity. Our problem is storing enough chemicals to produce electricity – the batteries become big and heavy, cumbersome and not practical… so perhaps we need to rethink batteries and the type of energy that we store. Can we make Shipstones?

Like I said – I am no scientist – and if I thought of this when I was 13 I would have paid more attention to science in class, and gone on and done this in university. I am older now, and would need to relearn and it would take years for me to even begin to start to come up with a solution… but with all the energy that is available around the globe, is there any way we can get the likes of Google and their energy sponsorship project to focus on alternative solutions to the energy problem, and not just alternative sources of fuel.

This would certainly make more efficient homes.

See David, I did eventually get to answering your question! ;)


Comment posted by david mcmahon
at 1/28/2008 4:34:59 AM

Steph, I really appreciated this because of my science background.

Succinct post and I reckon you explained the battery cells issue really well.

So glad my question was the impetus ….

Comment posted by ozlady
at 1/28/2008 5:44:23 AM

Oh great, so that means you’ll be working on this and saving the world then… ;)


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