Welcome to my J.A.M. (Just Ask Mike) Session, a weekly column where I answer your basic electrical questions. If you’re a newbie who’s never plugged in a shore power cord (or ask – what’s a shore power cord?), or wonder why your daughter’s hair dryer keeps tripping the circuit breaker, this column is for you. Send your questions to Mike Sokol at mike (at) noshockzone.org with the subject line – JAM. Today I discuss the possibility of hemp-powered batteries and other potential energy sources.
I know that lithium is all the rage right now. But if this FYI is possibly true (first I’ve heard of this, so I don’t know any more either), there just might be something else 8 times better on the not terribly distant future horizon. And it’s something we actually grow instead of mining. Will batteries using hemp as the raw material actually get developed? Sure would be nice, wouldn’t it?
Hey, I’m a child of the ’70s, so I do know something about this. And the one thing I’m sure of is that there’s been thousands of stories over the last 50 years about the near-magical properties of hemp. Most of these are done as an inside joke, sort of like a Cheech and Chong movie.
I did read this story attached to the poster’s question, just for grins. It weaves in a little real information along with a lot of “smoke.” Is there really a battery chemistry that could be eight times better than lithium-ion or lithium iron phosphate? And could it be as simple as burning a bunch of hemp?
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I did a quick trip down the rabbit hole and skimmed over a few papers on graphene battery chemistry or carbon nanotubes along with other promising technologies. And if those work and can be scaled up to massive production levels, then they could indeed surpass lithium battery performance.
Do they need to burn hemp to make carbon nanotubes?
In a word, no. You can heat up pretty much anything organic in an oxygen-free environment and get carbon. Carbon is everywhere… You can get it from every plant or animal. And if you’re willing to invest the energy, you can split carbon dioxide back into carbon and oxygen. Graphene and nanotubes are just specialized carbon structures that have all sorts of unique electrical properties, including the possibility of superconductors or supercapacitors.
Are we really running out of lithium for batteries?
Not really—it’s a very common mineral. Unfortunately, it can be very dirty to mine in the quantities needed. There is at least one pilot lithium extraction plant using the brine from the Salton Sea that could reduce the amount of mining pollution by 95%. But this all remains to be seen. Read my Salton Sea article HERE.
And the same can be said for coal, oil and natural gas extraction. All energy mining and storage systems are environmentally damaging. And the same is true for renewable and alternative energy technologies such as wind, solar and biodiesel. It’s just a matter of picking your poison, as it were.
What about nuclear energy?
While I’m a child of the TMI meltdown (Three Mile Island) and Chernobyl as well as the more recent Fukushima reactor meltdowns, I do think that there’s room for smaller scale nuclear reactors as an interim technology until sustainable fusion is developed.
In fact, I’ve been reading a lot lately about SMR (Small Modular Reactors) that produce up to 300 megawatts of power, and need to be refueled only every 10 to 20 years. These reactors are based on the same technologies as modern nuclear-powered aircraft carries and submarines. They’re small enough to be built on a production line in a factory and delivered to their destinations on a standard semi-truck.
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Of course, there are still the issues of nuclear waste products as well as safety and the proliferation of nuclear materials. But from what I’ve read, these Small Modular Reactors can be self-limiting, thereby eliminating the possibility of a runaway chain reaction and meltdown. So I’m cautiously optimistic, but I need a lot more data before I buy into this.
All energy production is dirty!
Yup, it’s true. From mining, to transportation, to storage. All energy production and usage has a huge environment impact. Building and disposing of solar panels and wind turbines can be dirty, as well. And certainly nuclear energy is full of problems. It’s a matter of doing this responsibly and finding better ways to minimize the environmental impact that won’t destroy our economy.
OK, everyone. Remember that electricity is a useful and powerful force, so we all need to pay attention to safety precautions while using it.
Let’s play safe out there….
Send your questions to me at my new RVelectricity forum here.
Mike Sokol is an electrical and professional sound expert with 50+ years in the industry. His excellent book RV Electrical Safety is available at Amazon.com. For more info on Mike’s qualifications as an electrical expert, click here.
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