Plasma TVs consume a notoriously large amount of electricity, but new technology being developed by scientists from University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) could turn those energy suckers into energy savers.
By removing the gas from the tiny tubes that produce high-definition pictures, and replacing it with an electrical field, the UIUC scientists think they can create a "digital quantum battery," a new type of energy storage device that could hold more electricity, and even computer information, than any current technology today.
"We can build plasma panels without the gas; the gas helps current flow, and that's not what we want," said Alfred Hubler, a scientist at the UIUC developing digital quantum batteries and author of an upcoming paper in the journal Complexity.
The "quantum" of the digital quantum battery comes from the unique physical properties that happens at very small, or quantum, scales. Negatively charged electrons zoom around the positively charged protons inside an atom, creating an extremely strong electrical field.
Hubler wants to take advantage of this effect to store electrical fields, but on a larger scale using the same microtubes that usually hold ionized gas for TVs.
There are millions of these tubes inside a typical plasma TV, holding a small amount of ionized gas. The gas allows an electrical current to flow though it. Remove the electrically conductive gas, however, and the resulting vacuum becomes an insulator, storing electrical fields.
Using the same microtubes found in a plasma TV, Hubler estimates he could create a device that could store about twice as much energy as conventional batteries.
However, Hubler has more power in mind. One of the most effective ways to store energy is in the bonds between atoms. This property is what makes kerosene and gasoline so effective as fuel. Hubler's microtube-derived battery can only hold about half as much power as kerosene.
Using stronger and smaller carbon nanotubes, however, and his digital quantum battery holds up to 10 times the amount of energy contained inside kerosene.
Billions of five-nanometer-long devices crammed together would be enough to power most 15-volt commercial electronic devices, said Hubler.
Each one of those several billion nanotubes could also represent a piece of information, a 0 or a 1, depending on the electrical field it contains. This is where the "digital" in digital quantum battery comes in.
"If the first (nanotube) is charged and the second (nanotube) is not, it's like a flash drive," said Hubler. "The flash drive is optimized to store the charge with the smallest amount of energy possible, whereas in our device you want the maximum amount of energy possible."
Other scientists are intrigued by the possibility of the device, but caution that numerous hurdles must still be overcome before an actual working prototype is made.
"This represents a different direction in research that exploits an intriguing phenomena," said Joel Schindall, a scientist at MIT developing ultracapacitors. "I'm rooting for it, but there are a number of things that could be showstoppers."
Chief among those concerns is the strength of the materials. The electrical fields these tubes will be subjected to will be intense. The whole concept of a quantum digital battery could literally fall apart if the tubes aren't strong enough to withstand the pressures.
The bottom line, says Schindall, is that we need something better than what is currently out there, and a digital quantum battery is one technology that could solve those energy storage problems.