What is an enabling technology? The brain is the ultimate enabling technology without which no human invention is possible. Since food nourishes the body and the brain, agriculture, both traditional and modern, qualifies as an enabling technology, too. A third example is energy technology that powers all the other inventions.
One of the critical enabling technologies of the future lies in the electric battery. Electric batteries are already powering billions of cell phones, laptop computers, and watches worldwide. Without the battery in your car, you cannot fire up the engine. Moreover, you cannot see the road when it rains because the windshield wiper stops working. Look at all the consumer gadgets around us, they are all dead without the battery. A lot of monitoring instruments are run on batteries, too, especially in the medical and military sectors.
The race for battery technology has been revolving around five goals: smaller size, less weight, better recharge ability, more power delivered, and higher capacity for electricity storage. The materials used have evolved from lead-acid to nickel cadmium, nickel metal hydride, and to the present lithium ion and polymer. The achievements regarding battery size and weight have been very impressive comparing today’s mobile phone with an old heavy one the size of a shoebox costing $2000 twenty years ago.
The future challenge lies in further improving the capacity for recharge, power, and storage. The battery industry is aiming at the biggest prize of all: the electrification of the automobile. When cost parity is reached between oil and battery electricity, it will trigger mass adoption of the electric car. The electrification of autos promises to be a revolution of the 21st century, similar to the steam engine and the internal combustion engine in previous eras. At present, the cost for battery electricity is around $900 per kilowatt-hour. The threshold for mass adoption of the electric car is estimated at around $350, which is achievable between 5 to 10 years at the current rate of price drops due to technological advance.
The requirements for the electric car battery are much tougher than those for smaller electronic gadgets. It needs a storage capacity of at least 250 miles as opposed to the current 100 miles for the Nissan Leaf, the first passenger electric car on the market. It needs to have a longer lifespan despite all the sudden up-down power demands by the driver. As for recharge, it needs a shorter time with the regular electric voltage supplied at home.
With respect to power, the Nissan Leaf and the newer GM Volt have succeeded in delivering enough to satisfy the consumers. Although the weight of the battery is important, it is not an urgent problem because it can be compensated by a lighter electric engine and cooling system, and the use of composite materials in place of metals.
The electric battery is intimately tied to two emerging industries: mobile and solar. Mobile technology stimulates the battery industry because it requires powering the receivers and transmitters embodied in the products carried by the consumers wherever they go. The solar industry requires batteries to store free electricity generated by sunlight for later use. If the electric car is designed to use free fuel from the sun, the car battery must be recharged efficiently at home or somewhere else equipped with a solar roof.
The battery technology is driven by research in material chemistry. A breakthrough depends on the discovery of a new material or a new chemical reaction. Although the current technology employing lithium ions holds great promises, it may be eclipsed by some better materials or chemical processes as time passes.