Tag Archives: Technology

Battery and Charging Technology 20240128

It has become obvious to nearly everyone that we need to stop burning fossil fuels, and while that is all well and good, what takes their place? We have renewable energy sources that can provide electricity to run our vehicles and power our homes, but they tend to be intermittent. The Sun only shines half of the day, winds come and go, and the key technology we need to bridge the gap is battery technology. Fortunately there have been some important developments that provide good news on this front. Much of this comes from China which has no oil resources of its own is and is therefor incentivized push research into alternatives. And another country in a similar situation is Japan, which has the same incentives and has also done good work in this area. The United States, in contrast, is a major oil producer and as such has faced significant opposition to efforts to move to renewables.

One major area we need to look at is for automobiles. The share of new vehicles that are electric goes up each year, and they will be the largest share of new vehicles sooner than most people realize. In 2023, Norway had 90% of their sales be EVs in the first half of 2023. This figure includes both pure electric vehicles and hydrid-electric vehicles. In Germany the comparable figure was 35%, and in China 33% (https://fortune.com/2023/11/23/us-electric-vehicle-sales-2023-record/). Meanwhile, California and Washington have mandated that 100% of new vehicles be electric by 2035,. New Jersey has a similar mandate and I would expect other states will join in this. But the main obstacle to increased adoption is what is called “range anxiety”. For example, most electric cars right now have around a 300 mile top range on a full charge. And recharging can take up to an hour at a time. I do a trip each year from my home in Michigan to New England, where most of the family for both me and my wife live, and that is around 800 miles. So that would mean stopping at least twice going each way for up to an hour for a recharge. The solution has to be some combination of higher capacity batteries and quicker recharging times. Fortunately there is progress on both of these fronts.

Contemporary Amperex Technology Co, Ltd. (CATL)

This is the largest battery manufacturer in the world, and it is a Chinese company. For that reason, there are accusations in the US that they are a security concern. But the rest of the world is not likely to worry too much about that. What they have done technically is to improve the capacity and charging times of their batteries significantly. They now are shipping batteries that power a car for 400km (about 250 miles) on just a 10 minute charge. So for my trip each year I would spend 30 minutes recharging instead of two hours. That starts to look like a feasible plan. Or with a full charge, it could go 700km (435 miles). So I could get a full charge before leaving home, do a couple of 10 minute charges on the way, and be there with power to spare. That is totally doable. As a pair of senior citizens I can assure you we spend more time than that in the bathrooms as we go. These batteries are fairly conventional as rechargeables go, being Lithium-Iron-Phosphate (LIP) in their chemistry. But what about other technologies?

Solid-State Batteries

One of the leaders with this technology is Toyota, which is the early leader in hybrid vehicles, which combine a gasoline (petrol) engine with batteries and electric motors. So they have probably more automotive experience with batteries than any manufacturer in the business, even though they are a bit later to the fully-electric vehicle market. Solid-state batteries can avoid using Lithium, which can be a safety issue, and they will be lighter and have a higher energy density. Because this is new technology, it may not appear in production for another 3-4 years, but Toyota claims they should be able to produce a car that will go 1200km (750 miles) on a 10 minute charge. Here is a look at Toyota’s plans: https://www.caranddriver.com/news/a45942785/toyota-future-ev-battery-plans/.

Of course, Toyota is far from the only company researching this. Honda is the main competitor to Toyota in Hybrid vehicles, and they have plans for solid-state batteries as well: https://global.honda/en/tech/All-solid-state_battery_technology/. Chinese manufacturer NIO has a semi-solid state battery right now that can go 650 miles (1046 km) on a single charge.

It is worth noting that the idea of solid-state batteries is not all that new, as Michael Faraday first discovered them in the early 19th century. What is new is the technology to scale up the batteries into something that can power an automobile.

For as good look at how solid-state batteries work, here is an explanation from the Harvard University School of Engineering and Applied Sciences: https://seas.harvard.edu/news/2024/01/solid-state-battery-design-charges-minutes-lasts-thousands-cycles. And here is one from New Scientist: https://www.newscientist.com/article/2398896-what-are-solid-state-batteries-and-why-do-we-need-them. And here is Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Solid-state_battery.

Other Technologies

BYD is a Chinese company that is the world’s largest EV producer. They employ a technology that is called the Blade battery. This is a variation on LIP technology that the company claims is safer, has a longer range, and a longer lifetime. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blade_battery.

Sodium-ion batteries are a coming thing as well. This is not surprising since Sodium and Lithium are in the same chemical family both being alkali metals. So they should have similar properties. But one advantage of sodium is that it is more abundant. So sodium-ion batteries should cost less, and unlike lithium produce no toxic by-products. The Swedish company Northvolt has made great progress in this area: https://www.theguardian.com/business/2023/nov/21/breakthrough-battery-from-sweden-may-cut-dependency-on-china.

Role for Government

The biggest problem is the lack of infrastructure around battery recharging, and that is where there is a role for government. In the US, which I am most familiar with, the government has in the past intervened to promote transportation innovations. In the 19th century, it was the promotion of railroads, which the government aided through substantial land grants. Then in the 20th century it was building the road network. Those things would not have happened if the government had not made those investments. I would suggest that there is a need now to build out the charging infrastructure at a speed and scale that the private sector cannot accomplish. That would solve the last problem preventing wide-spread adoption of Electric Vehicles. Companies are now producing, or will be shortly, the batteries we need. Right now, with my fuel-efficient car, it takes me two tanks of gasoline (petrol) to make my trip each year since I can go around 500 miles on a full tank. We should within the next few years have batteries that can exceed that range. What we lack is the charging infrastructure to make recharging as easy as refueling is now. The obstacle now is not technology, it is politics.

The other issue that should be a concern to some Americans is that all of the leading work on these vital technologies is happening in other countries. I’m less concerned about that because the problems we face are global, but I find it odd that some American politicians consider technology from China to be a security threat, yet seem to have no interest in developing the technology here.

Audacity Update 20230702

I have been using Audacity for a variety of audio processing needs for some years now, and until lately I have been quite satisified. But lately it seems to have developed a hyper-sensitivity to errors and refusing to load files from my podcasts. I like to use Audacity to process those podcast files as described in my article “Preparing Podcasts for Listening“, and when those files won’t load that presents a problem. Among the errors I have gotten is a complaint about Bad Huffman Code, or Bad File Length, or Forbidden Bitrate Value. Now it is entirely possible that these are real errors of some kind, but are they really bad enough to just refuse to load the files? I think not. In fact, some online searching has disclosed that Audacity decided to enable error checking in libmad, which is the decoding library, which it had not done before. But they realized that it was picking up a lot of really minor stuff, so in the next version they may relax the error checking. I hope so, though I note that some of this information is from 2020.

My work around is to use online File Converters, which load the files just fine. Then I convert from MP3 to OGG, for instance, download the converted file, and then let my Audacity script run on the converted file, which it does perfectly. I have found a couple I like, though there is no shortage of converters out there. The two I have used are Convertio and Online Audio Converter. They are both fast and easy, and I note that both have now added some simple Video Editing tools. You wouldn’t use them for really serious work, but for combining two clips or cutting out footage they would probably work just fine.

My review of Living With Moore’s Law

Living With Moore’s Law: Past, Present and Future by Dana Blankenhorn

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This was a fascinating book. I first started following Blankenhorn when he was a reporter covering technology, particularly Linux and Open Source software. Then I added his blog to my feed reader, and it remains there to this day. Moore’s Law is named for Gordon Moore of Intel, who once forecast that the number of transistors on a silicon chip would roughly double every two years, which is of course an exponential growth curve, and if you know anything about mathematics you know that exponential growth curves get insanely steep insanely quickly. In the real world, of course, that cannot persist. Some factor will step in to stop the exponential growth. But Blankenhorn expands on the notion and explores how something very much like Moore’s Law happens in other areas. And the implications are important. For example, with the role that computers play in our economy, this implies a deflationary bias to the economy, which very few people are even thinking about. (Most people are worried about inflation, which concerns me not the least.) But then look at biology. Our ability to sequence DNA and manipulate it meant that the first vaccines for Covid-19 started to appear in record time from when the virus was sequenced and described. The sequencing of the virus happened in record time, and then the vaccines came out in record time. And it is not a fluke or a one-time thing, advances build on what went before. So what this book does is explore how exponential growth in various ways will affect our future. As such, it is reminiscent of Ray Kurzweil’s work. I thoroughly enjoyed this book.

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My Chromebook Experience

I was listening to Hacker Public Radio episode #3242, which was a lengthy look at Chromebooks by a couple of Linux folks, who were on the whole pretty happy with the experience. This may surprise some folks, but I was not surprised since I have been using one for over a year and have found it useful. Chromebooks have, at the heart, a Linux base, and you can do a lot with them. And the discussion went into things like installing emacs or doing audio and video production, and so on. But the is not my use case at all.

I have home network with several desktops, one of which belongs to my wife who uses it for her work. Although we have Wi-Fi for things like phones, tablets, and laptops, the desktops are all connected via ethernet to the router. And we also have a Drobo NAS box to handle backups (onsite; we also have Carbonite for offsite backup) and for mass storage of things like MP3 music files, videos, and photos. When I do audio production, such as recording my shows for HPR, I do that using Audacity on my Kubuntu 18.04 desktop machine, and I will happily continue to do that. So while I was enjoying the discussion of how you can do that on a Chromebook, frankly I will probably never do anything that interesting. I try to fit my tools to my purposes, and have no problem using multiple tools. I considered posting a comment on the show, but then I channeled my inner Ken Fallon and decided to record my own show in reply. Besides, HPR always needs more shows.

In 2014 I had purchased a Nexus 9 tablet with the idea of having something I could easily carry around and do things like read, check my email, and look things up. Basically things I could do on a phone, but just with a larger screen. But the thing with e-mail is that you have to type, and using the on-screen keyboard never got comfortable for me. I could do it, but it was work. I really wanted a keyboard. So I got a keyboard/case combination, which connected via Bluetooth. Sometimes. It was quite erratic, and tended to drive me nuts. Still it served my primary purpose. I took it with me on my trip to Ireland in 2015 and used it to keep my diary of the trip and similar things. And I took it with me for breakfast on Sunday mornings at a local restaurant. So, it was not excellent, but it was OK, and once I had bought it I kept using it.

Then it started to misbehave. While I was at breakfast at that local restaurant, it started to emit loud sounds kind of like a siren, which is embarrassing when you are out in public. And this happened again after rebooting. At some point I just had to face the fact that it was dying. I could have bought another tablet, but since I didn’t entirely enjoy the experience I decided to buy a Chromebook. So in June of 2019 I spent $309 USD to buy an Acer Chromebook. It has an Intel Celeron dual-core processor and 4GB of RAM, so it isn’t particularly powerful, but it is very light and easy to carry around. I can check my e-mail on it, and when my wife and I visited Europe in Fall, 2019, I used it to keep our travel diary as a Google Doc. I can install and run Android apps on it, and I use it every day to run a couple of Spanish learning apps because typing on a keyboard is much better than trying to do it on a phone screen. If I fold the screen and keyboard back, it behaves like a tablet. And I use it at least a couple of times a week for Zoom calls. It is great for that and easier than plugging in a camera and microphone on my desktop, since it has all of that equipment built in. And as a slim and light machine, it is great for taking on flights or other travel.

So it does a lot of good things for me. That said, it will never be my main computer., but that is fine since I have more powerful computers for other uses. But for something I can just grab-and-go, I am quite happy with it. If this one reaches EOL I will probably get another one. Mine is scheduled to receive updates through June of 2024, and right now I expect I will buy another when that happens.

My Review of Tips for Time Travelers

Tips for Time Travelers by Peter Cochrane

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Peter Cochrane was the head of the research labs at British Telecommunications, and this book is a series of short essays on his ideas about future technologies. Given that this book was assembled in 1999 (I believe the individual articles were written in the 1990s), events have overtaken some of his projections, but they are still interesting. At 2 pages per essay, this is a book best dipped into rather than read at one sitting. There are 108 of these short essays in this book.

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My Review of How Google Works

How Google Works by Eric Schmidt

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Google started as the project of graduate students at Stanford, but as it became successful and grew they realized they needed some managerial assistance, and this book comes from two of the people they brought in: Eric Schmidt (Executive Chairman) and Jonathan Rosenberg (SVP of Products). As one of the most successful companies in the world (perennially in the top three for market capitalization) knowing how they did that is worth some consideration. And this is an interesting book for that. Their story is that they were brought in to apply management skills but quickly learned that Google could not be managed the way they were used to doing it. They focus on empowering creative people to do awesome things, and there is certainly evidence that Google does that, but it is also true that this is an insider’s book that is not going to air any dirty laundry. So take it with a grain of salt.

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My Review of What Technology Wants

What Technology Wants by Kevin Kelly

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is an interesting read if you don’t mind a bit of teleology. Kelly conceives of technology like an organism, which he calls the technium: “The technium is a superorganism of technology. It has its own force that it exerts. That force is part cultural (influenced by and influencing of humans), but it’s also partly non-human, partly indigenous to the physics of technology itself.” His purpose in this book is to trace the ways technology has developed in the past and use that to project where it will go in the future. Since we will be living in that future and relying on that technology (barring a disaster), this is a book that repays the attention you give it.

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My Review of In the Plex: How Google Thinks, Works, and Shapes Our Lives

In the Plex: How Google Thinks, Works, and Shapes Our Lives by Steven Levy

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Not quite as mandatory reading as his classic Hackers, this is nonetheless a good book for anyone who is interested in more contemporary Internet history. Levy got “embedded” in Google for a couple of years and had access to pretty much all of the significant people in the Google story. One personal note: the Google “house economist”, Hal Varian, was one of my professors at the University of Michigan when I was studying for a Ph.D. there in the early 1980s. I doubt he could pick me out of a lineup, though.

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My Review of Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution

Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution by Steven Levy

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is a recently updated and reissued version of Levy’s classic book from 25 years ago. He traces the development of computing from the MIT model railroad club in the late 1950s through Silicon Valley in the 1980s. All of the major figures are covered, and he really brings home what the hacker ethic is about. If you have any interest in the history of computing this is one of those books you have to read

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My Review of The Singularity Is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology

The Singularity is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology by Ray Kurzweil

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I think it is important to consider how the things we do today will create the future we will inhabit. Kurzweil’s book is very important. You might think that the things he talks about cannot possibly happen. But then think about Moore’s Law, and what that has done in one small area. That is the premise Kurzweil starts with, and he makes an attractive case for it. Still, I am skeptical because the brain is so much more complex than he seems to realize. I doubt the things he predicts will happen on his schedule. Still, this is a book that is thought-provoking.

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