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RVelectricity – Just Ask Mike (J.A.M.): Up in Smoke: Hemp-powered batteries?

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.


 

Dear Mike,
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?

I am hoping you can take a look at this and give us a little more information on what this test might show in real-life terms.

Dear Readers,

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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Science to the rescue…

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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Can nuclear energy ever be safe?

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.

You don’t want to miss Mike’s webcasts on his YouTube channel.

For information on how to support RVelectricity and No~Shock~Zone articles, seminars and videos, please click the I Like Mike Campaign

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Steve H
24 days ago

As Mike says, every form of man-made energy production has environmental consequences. Hydroelectric power was all the rage in the 1930s, eg., Hoover Dam, the TVA dams in the SE, the Bonneville Project on the Columbia River, etc. But one glance at what the current 22-year drought in the SW has done to Lake Mead and Lake Powell indicates that another 10 or 20 drought years may end that hydroelectric power production completely.

In the 1960s and ’70s, nuclear power was the latest and greatest. I was reviewing permit applications for two uranium mines in Colorado in 1979. They never opened because the bottom fell out of uranium prices due to TMI’s meltdown. Colorado’s only nuclear power plant, built in the 1970s, was shut down and converted to a gas-fired plant due to its poor performance.

Now, silicon solar panels, fiberglass wind turbines, and lithium batteries are all the rage. But what happens to lithium production when the accidentally man-made Salton Sea dries up in the drought?

Ray
24 days ago

Great strides are being made along many fronts of energy production and storage. What jazzes me are the breakthrus in fusion. If that stays on track there should be commercial fusion reactors available within a decade. A European consortium is working on a demostration model now with plans for a full scale model called ITER that is expected to increase effieiency to near commercial viability. The next step won’t be far behind.

Thomas D
24 days ago

Back in the early 50’s ” my weekly read” had an article about everyone was going to have their own nuculer power plant in the back yard. It was about the size of a garbage can. Well we know that didn’t happen. Then came the fuel cells. Whatever happened to them? They sounded promising, burning natural gas for fuel.
We haven’t touched the future yet. Lithium will be a thing of the past, just like the Wright brothers first airplane.

volnavy007
24 days ago

As for a small nuclear reactor, there was one in Antarctica in the 1960s and 1970s. I was in Antarctica for Deep Freeze 72-74. I don’t know when it was removed but while it was in operation it was very efficient. From a nuclear engineer that I know, TMI was operator error so future nuclear plants might want to be like factories of the future; one person and one dog to manage the fully robotic plant (the person is there to feed the dog and the dog is there to keep the person from touching anything).

Tom S
18 days ago
Reply to  volnavy007

448 malfunctions in 8 years, don’t call that efficient, shut down at 1/2 its intended life, not cost effective
and polluting http://large.stanford.edu/courses/2014/ph241/reid2/

RallyAce
24 days ago

I side with Mike on this. It reminds me of the 100 MPG carburetors for cars that folks talked about but nobody ever saw.

Michael Gardner
24 days ago

Every week there is yet another pronouncement of a new battery that is going to save the world. Most are just looking for funding for research. None so far have made it to delivery of a practical product. When something comes out that is twice the capacity and half the price of my lithium’s, I’ll replace them!

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