Week 8: Making Connections

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Thursday, July 27, 2017


Riley Troyer

At our tour of NIST (National Institute of Standards and Technology) last week I made several connections regarding energy storage, and this was the week to follow up on those.

My report regarding the history, current status and future of energy storage has been coming along well, but a lot of the sources I have found are several years old. Energy storage is a field that has made significant advancements in the past few years, so being able to speak with people at the forefront of their fields gave me a whole new perspective.

It was very interesting to get contrasting views from those studying batteries and those studying hydrogen fuel cells. In many ways both of these technologies are competing against each other and it was clear that the experts were a bit biased. It’s pretty understandable, though. If I had devoted a good portion of my life to study a technology, I would definitely be biased in that direction. I got the impression from the battery experts that hydrogen is a past technology and won’t play a big role in the future. From the hydrogen experts, it was that batteries are starting to reach physical and economic limits, but hydrogen has a very promising future.

Talking to these experts and researchers is great practice for what I feel is one of the most important jobs of a physicist on the Hill. With our background we can help decipher the truth behind issues like energy storage. By understanding some of the science behind the claims, a physicist can filter out the most reliable information. This is incredibly important for making informed and responsible decisions and crafting legislation, especially for an issue as important as the electric grid.

As part of this project I have also started working on a physics problem relating to the grid. The question is, what are the physical limits to renewable energy and energy storage. Say, for instance, that the entire U.S. electric grid was run on wind and solar sources. How much storage would be needed? Would it even be possible to store the necessary energy entirely in batteries? Last year I took a short course where we focused on doing back-of-the-envelope solutions to problems, also known as Fermi problems. These are important in the field of physics as they allow us to start understanding a problem so that it can be approached in a more informed matter. Doing these calculations about the electric grid is a perfect application of the skills I learned in that class. I don’t need an exact answer, but knowing what to expect within an order of magnitude can be very informative. I’m really looking forward to working more on this problem in the coming weeks. 

Riley Troyer