Highlights from the AAAS: Batteries out of Paper, Order out of Chaos

By Maggie Koerth-Baker

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I spent Saturday veering from science future, to science past and back again—learning about the ways nanotechnology could revolutionize energy generation and storage, delving into the history of how scientists made themselves more accountable to fact and then getting a peek at the connections researchers are trying to make between social policy and climate/energy technology.

Paper Batteries, and the Hunt for the Perfect Thermal Insulator

"We basically have perfect electrical insulators," said David Cahill, Ph.D., professor of engineering and materials science at the University of Illinois. "You can grab a live wire that's coated in insulating material and you don't die."

But there's no analog for that in thermal insulation, Cahill said. That fact that matters a lot if you care about improving energy efficiency in everything from engines to houses. Cahill is part of a team working to improve thermal insulation with nanotechnology. His goal: Create some kind of new material that will disrupt the transfer of heat energy between two objects. Getting it right would have big implications. For instance, we could drastically improve our ability to capture the waste heat from electrical generation and put it to use in other ways.

One possible solution is silicon nanowires. These structures are normally baby-butt smooth, but as you make their surfaces more and more rough, the nanowires conduct less and less thermal energy. Right now, it's not exactly clear why that trick works. But understanding it could put Cahill's team on the right path.

He's not the only one taking energy technology nano. Another researcher on the same panel, Yi Cui, Ph.D., of Stanford, is applying nanostructures to energy storage, in hopes of developing smaller batteries that can hold more power.

In fact, according to Cui, nanotech is absolutely essential to any future progress with batteries. Storage capacity for size has plateaued, he explained. To go further, we have to start making electrodes out of completely different—and probably completely new—materials.

Nanotech has even enabled Cui to make batteries out of paper and fabric. His team takes these ordinary materials and coats them in carbon nanotubes. The porous fibers give ions easy access to the conductive nanotubes. The more nanotubes you add, the more conductive the paper or fabric becomes. Layer many sheets of treated material together, and you get all-paper supercapacitors, which Cui's team has already built.

Do the same thing with the textiles—which are still stretchable and flexible—and you've got wearable electronics. Of course, there are limitations. In the Q&A, somebody asked Cui what would happen if you wore those fabrics on a static-y day. The reply was some awkward laughter and promise that the team is still working out the kinks.

Ghosts of Science Past

I went to a lecture on the history of dealing with experimental error not really knowing what to expect: Boring round of scientific "Inside Baseball" or eye-opening fact fest? Thanks to historian Jed Z. Buchwald, the session definitely veered toward the latter.

Even the basic idea was fascinating. You probably know that modern scientists try to account for their own research mistakes by running an experiment or taking a measurement multiple times. Often, the results will all be slightly different, and scientists deal with that by taking an average—which is likely to represent the closest-to-correct answer.

But they didn't always do it that way. In fact, according to Buchwald, the first scientist to use averages to address error was Isaac Newton, who privately started taking averages in his notebooks in 1671.

Before that, obviously, scientists still made mistakes. Multiple measurements or experiments still yielded varying results. But they dealt with the variation in a very different way—they picked the answer they thought represented their best work.

To modern ears, that sounds like cheating—"You just randomly decided on the number you liked best? That's science?" But, at the time, it was perfectly logical. Historically, scientists viewed themselves as craftsmen, Buchwald said. If you were building a piece of fine furniture, you wouldn't make a bunch and pick the average to display. You'd choose the finished version that was the best, and best displayed your woodworking skill.

In fact, the whole reason Newton didn't publish his first research to use averages was because it would have made him look like a lousy scientist. After all, what kind of craftsman can't tell his own best work?

More highlights coming tomorrow! You should also follow my live tweets of conference sessions (Today, I'm hitting one lecture on sustainable farming—by a Monsanto researcher, no less— another called "Doomsday vs. Discovery", and probably a bit on the ethical implications of dolphin smarts.) You can follow lots more AAAS live tweeters by watching the #aaas10 hashtag stream. And finally, read about sessions I wasn't able to attend by following the blogs on Science magazine.

Published 12:19 pm Sun, Feb 21, 2010

About the Author

Maggie Koerth-Baker is the science editor at BoingBoing.net. From August 2014-May 2015, she will be a Nieman-Berkman Fellow at Harvard University. You can follow Maggie's adventures in the Ivory Tower by subscribing to The Fellowship of Three Things newsletter.

5 Responses to “Highlights from the AAAS: Batteries out of Paper, Order out of Chaos”

  1. Grey Devil says:

    There’s a typo towards the end: “If you were building a piece of find furniture” with the error being Find = Fine.

    Anyways, i’d never thought about the whole method of taking data and averaging them out. Newton was definitely a pioneer and a genius, not that we didnt know that already.

  2. Roy Trumbull says:

    Edison had some real problems with lead-acid batteries. They were cheap enough but loaded with failure modes. He pioneered the nickel steel battery with alkaline chemistry. The battery outlasted the equipment it was used in. After his initial product was on the market he pulled it and 50,000 experiments later started making an improved version.
    I doubt that the battery we’re looking for will be derivative of anything we have now. It will take someone like Edison with a clean sheet of paper and an insight into the physics and chemistry involved. The properties of nano materials might give us a fresh crack at it.

  3. Anonymous says:

    Today, I’m hitting one lecture on sustainable farming—by a Monsanto researcher, no less…

    Wow, that should be interesting. Not to sound like too much of a tin-foil hat wearing paranoid, but in my reading of things Monsanto comes as close to embodying the Hollywood stereotype of “Mega Evil Corporation” as anything else of which I’m aware.

    It’ll be interesting to see how they play into “sustainability,” given the solid evidence that the intensive farming techniques their products encourage have been shown to be anything but sustainable.

  4. robcat2075 says:

    Cool how just a little bit too-red lips on Isaac up there makes him look like a very unaware modern cross-dresser.

  5. Anonymous says:

    FTA:- “as you make their surfaces more and more rough, the nanowires conduct less and less thermal energy”

    Would that be because there is less surface area touching the other wires/objects and so less heat is being conducted than before?

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