On the Future of Batteries

I’m reading Charles Stross’ Halting State at the moment, which is a gripping and tautly written piece,  and full of wonderful extrapolations about the future.  (It starts with a virtual bank robbery, and gets stranger from there.)

I’ve met Charlie at a couple of conventions – he’s a very likable, charismatic, larger than life guy, of astonishing fluency and cleverness.  And I also saw him talk at Easter Con on his vision of the future – not about his SF per se, but his more general thoughts on what he guesses will happen in technology and science. 

This is very much Charlie’s area of expertise - he’s a computer guy as well as a science guy. And he’s absolutely on the ball about the kind of technology that’s about to hit us – from quantum computing to ‘smart spectacles’ (which allow us to see the world and the virtual world of computer info or games simultaneously.  Think of Arnie in Terminator with his computer screen POV; that’ll be all of us in just a few years.)

At Easter Con, Charlie also spoke fascinatingly about the ‘plateau’ effect that’s affected a number of major technological developments. Because in the 1940s and 50s, many sensible speculators assumed that by the twenty first century there’d be men on the Moon, and men on Mars and a Moon colony, and maybe even starships, as well as flying cars and suchlike.  Well, man did reach the Moon in the 1960s; but none of the rest has come true. And this is because it all costs so much. A graph representing the limits of the possible would shoot up in an almost vertical line; but a graph of the limits of the affordable would be a horrible, boring flat line.  Progress goes so far at Fast; then it slows down.

In computing, by contrast, Moore’s Law applies – the rule that says that the number of transistors than can be placed on an integrated circuit doubles every 2 years.  This is not really a Law of course – it’s just the way it’s been up till now.  And it explains why computers are getting smaller, and more powerful, and yet also cheaper…!   And it explains too why we are now living in a world in which science fiction seems to have come true – with Bluetooth, Wi-fi, mini-computers, and Nintendos that double as phones. (Have you seen those? They’re so scary.) And yet – we don’t have spaceships, we don’t have teleportation, we don’t even have very many electric cars. We are a twentieth century industrial society with twenty first century computing power.   

In other words,  computers have improved exponentially; every other dang thing is stuck on the plateau.

Charlie’s view,  though, is that the same plateau effect may start happening in the world of computing – UNLESS quantum computing comes on line, in which case, who knows? 

But his thoughts on the future, in that talk and in Halting State, have made me think a little bit about my own vision of the future. 

That’s assuming I have such a thing of course -  because the truth is, I wrote Debatable Space to be fun and entertaining and thought-provoking. I didn’t sit down and spend months working out the science and the rules of the future history.  The story, and the characters, came first.

However, after writing DS, and revising it, and after working on Red Claw and Ketos, I’ve started to realise that my future universe depends on a number of key assumptions. 

And in a nutshell; in my future universe, there is no plateau effect.  Science progresses fast, and keeps progressing faster.  Many many planets are colonised.  Spaceships are huge and reliable and go very very fast.  Doppelganger Robots can be easily manufactured – whole armies of them if need be – and planets can be terraformed at extraordinary speed.  And in the Earth system, no one is poor, resources are limitless, and the Solar System even has its own lighting system so that it’s constant day.

This is a far cry from the dystopian vision of much SF.  It’s a world of plenty, and of endless resouces.  So how could that be possible?

In a word, batteries.

Yeah, I know, that last line was a ghastly belly flop.  If the word had been ‘magic’ or ‘science’ or if I’d used a phrase like ‘the exaltation of the human spirit’ it would have been much cooler. But batteries? How utterly nerdish is that? A future forged by Duracell?

Let me use another word then; energy.  As a planet and as a civilisation we are now experiencing a major energy crisis: oil and gas supplies are becoming depleted, nuclear fission energy is dirty and too expensive, nuclear fusion still isn’t commercial, and ‘green’ energy sources are hard work. (And can be highly non-ecological – look at all those damned wind farms.)

In addition, of course, we’re facing global warming because of the way we run our profligate industrial society. And it’s by no means ridiculous to suppose that in 50 or 100 years we’ll be experiencing climactic disasters on a global scale.

All this puts a terrific damper on scientific progress – apart from being, of course, awful in itself.   As SF readers we’re all familiar with the amazing variety of new inventions that could and we hope will transform our lives – quantum computing (as mentioned above), nanotechnologyrobotic fabricators which can turn every home into a factory, quantum teleportation, etc etc etc. But none of this is much use if we can’t turn the lights on.

So in the Debatable Space Universe, to make all the cool toys possible, I make a major supposition; I suppose that some clever spark has invented a battery (perhaps a development of SMES, superconducting magnetic energy storage, or a supercapacitor incorporating nanotechnology, or both) that is phenomenally efficient, small, and can hold vast amounts of energy in compressed form.  In Debatable Space these batteries are assumed; in the later books, I name them – I call them BBs, or B Bats. 

So let’s assume we have a BB that is able to contain in compressed form as much energy as the Sun emits in a day, assuming also you have a vast solar panel in orbit around the Sun to capture that energy.  And when I say vast I mean vast - after all, no one is going to complain that it blocks their view.  The orbiting solar panel can be far enough away from the Sun that melting does not occur, but near enough that the full value of the Sun’s heat is received.  And all that energy is then stored in the BB.

You then send a spaceship from the solar panel to the Earth carrying the BB; or you transmit the energy via laser beams to a satellite in orbit around the Earth,  if that’s possible, though my science advisor let me get away with it; or you find some other mechanism. But essentially, once you have you have lots of batteries all full of huge amounts of power, the energy needs of the world are over.  You can use the BB to power factories to build spaceships to collect more BBs.  You can use BBs to power robot miners to hew metals out of the asteroids.  BBs power the robot fabricators; BBs run our homes, so we don’t need a National Grid.

You’ll notice this above account is a little short on maths and engineering data and diagrams of solar panels in orbit. I adore writers like Asimov and Clarke and Greg Bear (and, indeed, Alastair Reynolds) who can back up their extrapolations with heavy duty science.  That’s not something I can do, not off the top of my head anyway; and it’s not where my focus is.

My point is simply this; this one invention makes everything else possible.  The sheer lunacy of the British government’s policy in promoting nuclear power (because it makes a loss! it fails on its own terms) is an indication of how inward-looking our policy of seeking out energy sources is.  We use oil and gas – which are the remains of carbon forests, but which ultimately constitute an organic stored form of the energy of the sun.  And we split the atom, to generate energy. And we dream of clean and cold nuclear fusion, which allows us to replicate on Earth the process by which energy is generated in the Sun.

But why not just cut out the middleman – go to the Sun. If we had materials strong enough, we could fire solar panels into the Sun itself.  Our entire planet – our forests and trees and plants and hence our animals – is fuelled by the energy from the Sun which, let’s face it, is way far away. But this is a tiny proportion of the energy the Sun spews out every day.

And once you have space travel – there are the stars.  Every single star is a burning mass of energy; and if you take a look at how many stars there are even in our tiny bit of the Galaxy, and how many other Galaxies there are, the mind starts to swim.  Even the human race couldn’t use up all that power.

The Universe of Debatable Space is therefore based on three assumptions.  1) That instantaneous space travel is possible by a combination of virtual technology and quantum entanglement.  2) That a new kind of battery makes energy virtually limitless.  3) That humanity continues to screw things up, big time.

Because the universe of Debatable Space is no Utopia, it’s no rosy-eyed vision of a world where no one wants for anything. It’s a nasty ruthless universe, where limitless resources are distributed in the most appallingly unfair way possible. That’s the drama and the ultimate source of jeopardy in these stories; that’s the war that Flanagan and Lena fight.

But it’s taken me three books to realise that I am essentially an optimist about the possibilities of scientific progress. I don’t believe there will be a plateau; I think we’ll either blow ourselves up, or we’ll spread through the galaxy with gadgets galore. 

And I also believe that even global warming will have a technological solution.  The solution may come too late – the crisis is imminent, as almost all commentators now agree. And the solution may be undesirable; is it morally right to solve the problems caused by technology by using more technology?

 Well, maybe not; but I still think it will happen. Because scientists are smart, and science is powerful; and if it can be done, we will do it. (Or rather, others will – I’ll still be writing SF.)

With great power comes great responsibility, as Peter Parker is told, rather too often.  So if at some future date – when? I have no idea? – our energy crisis is solved,  that doesn’t solve all our problems. Far from it. 

But it would be nice if all the other things I predict in Debatable Space – tyranny, oppression, brutality, genocide – don’t come true.  It would be nice if the human race were better, and wiser, than that. 

Let’s hope…

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