Surge in Battery Research Fuels Hope for Cheaper Electric Cars

Revelations in lithium battery technology could mean cheaper batteries and less sticker shock for electric cars

Stanford scientists Mike Toney and Johanna Nelson inspect a transmission X-ray microscope, a powerful device that takes nano-scale images of chemical reactions in batteries while they are running.

Imagine if Tesla, Nissan and GM could cut the price of their electric cars by 25%. That electric dream may be a wee bit closer than you think, thanks to researchers at Stanford University.

Recently a team from Stanford’s SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory announced a new method to analyze and potentially improve rechargeable battery technology in a radical way. A cheap, reliable rechargeable battery is the holy grail for electric carmakers that rely on costly lithium ion batteries for power. Instead of the usual pairing of a lithium compound with graphite, the study examined lithium-sulfur batteries, which in theory can store five times more energy at a significantly lower cost.

“Sulfur is an earth-abundant element and offers the greatest potential to reduce cost,” said research co-author Michael Toney, head of the Materials Sciences Division at SLAC’s Stanford Synchrotron Radiation Lightsource.

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The Easy Fix That Isn’t

Touted as a simple way to combat climate change, white roofs may actually increase global warming, according to a new Stanford study. 

Installing white roofs (or painting them white) has been promoted as a way to help slow global warming. New research shows that white roofs may actually add to global warming.

By Alyson Kenward

If you’re interested in staving off climate change without trying too hard, painting your roof white seems like a complete no-brainer. It’s far cheaper than trading in your SUV for a Prius, and it turns the laws of physics to best advantage. Dark roofs absorb sunlight that heats up your house, office tower, or apartment building. That means you’re bound to crank up the energy-intensive air conditioner to keep pace in the summer months — and since electricity in the U.S. comes largely from fossil fuels, the net result is more heat-trapping greenhouse gas emissions, and more global warming.
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Still Worried After All These Years: Paul Ehrlich on a Planet with 7 Billion People

Stanford biologist Paul Ehrlich still sees runaway population growth as a threat to the planet, but is hopeful that humans can avoid the first catastrophic collapse of a global civilization.

Stanford biologist Paul Ehrlich points to population and consumption as equally responsible for producing environmental damage.

By Sarah Jane Keller
Stanford News Service

Today’s the day that, according to a United Nations tally, world population reaches seven billion — and could top ten billion by the end of the century.

In his 1968 book, The Population Bomb, Stanford biologist Paul Ehrlich warned of the threat of unchecked human population growth. Over the past four decades, the book has brought attention to the question of how many individuals our planet can sustain. Today, Ehrlich reflects on what the four decades since have taught him. Continue reading

Climate News Roundup: the Melting Arctic, Solar Power, and Peak Oil

Rooftop Solar Panels in Vacaville. Photo: Craig Miller

1. MIT study finds IPCC underestimated Arctic ice melt

A forthcoming study by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology predicts that Arctic ice sheets are melting four times quicker than was forecast in the latest IPCC report. According to the study, the Arctic may be ice-free several decades sooner than 2100, which was predicted by the Fourth Assessment Report. Study authors say the IPCC data did not include forces such as wind and ocean currents that cause ice to break up.

The Journal of Geophysical Research Oceans will publish the study next month, but you can read the full news release at MIT’s website. Continue reading

The Long, Hot Summer: Longer & Hotter

Stanford study predicts the point of no return for hotter summers

By Katrina Schwartz

Just as many Californians are puzzling over winter-like weather in June, climate scientists are saying hotter days are ahead for most of the West. According to a new Stanford study (available soon at this link), we may be in for permanently hotter summers sooner than expected. Of course, for climatologists, “sooner” is a relative term.

Photo: Craig Miller

Plenty of climate scientists have studied the relationship between climate change and extreme temperature shifts, but until now no one has tried to pinpoint a moment when summer temperatures will permanently shift into a new “heat regime”, in which the coolest summer temperatures will be hotter than the hottest summer temperatures of the previous regime. Findings by the Stanford team suggest that the shift will likely happen sooner and be more widespread than expected. Continue reading

Citizen Science: The iPhone App

A new iPhone app aims to make recording and sharing observations of the natural world fast, easy, and could eventually help bring climate models into better focus.

Ken-ichi Ueda and Scott Loarie demonstrated the new iNaturalist iPhone app at Stanford's Jasper Ridge Biological Preserve (Photo: Richard Morgenstein)

At Jasper Ridge, a biological preserve and study area on the Stanford campus, a dozen of the preserve’s docents gathered this week to learn about a new iPhone application that could ultimately help scientists study how ecosystems are adapting to climate change.

The new app, called iNaturalist, is the mobile version of a citizen-science website by the same name.  The iPhone app is still in testing and not yet available, but the website,, is already an active online community of citizen-scientists around the world who use the site to record and share their sightings. Continue reading

California Heats Up

A chilly summer suddenly switches to record-breaking heat in much of California.  Is this climate change?

Photo: Craig Miller

It reached 113 degrees in Los Angeles on Monday, a record. And while a string of hot days in California doesn’t signify climate change any more than do record snowstorms in Washington D.C., the summer of 2010 did set quite a few records for high temperatures and heat waves. Although for us here in California, this week notwithstanding, we’ve had a pretty cool summer.

But this week’s heat — especially in Southern California — is a reminder of the ripple effects that could become commonplace if predictions of more frequent and severe heat waves come to pass, with a changing climate. Utilities pleaded with customers to conserve power as temperatures triggered record spikes in the electricity load and subsequent strain on the electrical grid. Continue reading

Creating Power from Both Light and Heat

A key component of new solar panel technology being tested at Stanford. (Photo: Nick Melosh)

In a kind of cruel paradox, heat has always been the enemy of solar panels.  At higher temperatures, photovoltaic cells become less efficient, which is problematic in an industry where efficiency is the name of the game. That heat also represents wasted energy.

Today, researchers at Stanford University announced that they may have helped solve that problem. Nick Melosh of Stanford’s Materials Science & Engineering department set out to make use of the wasted heat. He and his colleagues created a solar cell technology that uses both light and heat to generate electricity. It’s called “photon-enhanced thermionic emission” (or PETE for short). “This is the first time that a process has been reported that can use the heat and the photons together harmoniously,” says Melosh. Continue reading

Coal, Soot and A Mighty Wind

This week in climate news: coal dollars in California, soot in the air, and wind in the desert.

1. Big Coal Donates to Fiorina Campaign

Republican Senate candidate Carly Fiorina received $63,000 in donations  from out-of-state coal mining interests. About a third of that money is from Murray Energy Corporation in Ohio, the largest privately owned coal producer in the U.S. Continue reading

Schneider’s Legacy: Speaking Truth to Power

There’s been much hand-wringing of late over the disconnect between science and “Main Street.” When it comes to communicating complex concepts to the general public, even many scientists admit that they haven’t been making the light bulb come on.

(Photo: Stanford University)

That was never an issue for Steve Schneider. He never had any problems communicating. Most colleagues of the Stanford climate scientist, who died this week, remember him not just for his science resume, but also for his laser-like approach to getting the point across. Continue reading