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There Will Be Goop: Why MIT's "Cambridge Crude" Can't Be Left to a Startup

Some geeked-out Jed Clampetts at MIT have come up with an innovation that could solve two key problems with electric cars: high battery costs and lengthy recharge times. Read down for a technical description, but right now let's ponder how this stuff -- a kind of electric goo -- could come to market.

Let's see. There will be VCs and a general startup mentality and it will be idealistic and... No! It will be swiftly captured by the oil companies. It must be swiftly captured by the oil companies, wretched as that may sound.

Too good to be true?
Here's the scientific lowdown, from the Atlantic:

The batteries are powered by semi-solid flow cells, an innovative architecture that uses charged particles floating in a liquid electrolyte between two containers--one for storing energy and one for discharging energy. Separating out the functions and other innovations make the new batteries ten times as efficient as similar existing technology and cheaper to manufacture than lithium-ion batteries. In short, the new batteries make irrelevant the size and cost limitations that have kept this kind of technology out of electric cars to date.
Translation: The MIT kinder-geniuses have reinvented both the EV charging system and created a sort of EV "gas tank," enabling much cheaper batteries and much faster refueling. From pumps. Just like everyone does with gas.

It's almost too good to be true, but evidently it is, and because it's true, we can't afford to flush the innovation down the tubes by funding and managing it by what it sounds like -- a tech play. Rather, we need to treat it as a synthetic natural resource and get it into the hands of the people who have the distribution system and infrastructure to bring it rapidly online.

Big oil becomes big battery goo
Everyone involved with this project should get their due. And no one should for a moment think that the oil (or energy companies, as they might wish to be called) can be trusted to handle something like this in the best interest of the consumer.

There's still a lot of oil in the ground, and oil companies want to make lots and lots of money extracting it. But even they are forward-looking enough to know that new oil finds are increasingly rare and in places that a difficult and dangerous to get at. Think that if left to its own devices, the oil industry will kill this idea dead? Maybe not.

A major and concerted investment from the oil companies would get battery goo past a tipping point, and would probably involve a significant amount of government support. So sure, it's horrifying to contemplate the oil companies being handed what could otherwise be the driver of their demise. But we're in this for the species, people.

So what are the problems?
There could be some problems associated with this stuff that prevents it from being the ideal fuel. It will presumably require a fair amount of energy to produce. And "Cambridge Crude," as it's being waggishly called, will generate waste, in the form of used fluid that will have to be pumped out so that fresh battery goo can be pumped in.

But in the end, there will likely be solutions to these problems. The real challenge is to figure out a way to throw enough money at the innovation. And if that means encouraging the inventors to sell out immediately for the greater good, and abandon the romance of the high-tech funding model, so be it.


Photo: Wikimedia Commons
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