Ecocentricity Blog: A Drink With Leonardo

By: John A. Lanier
Jun 17, 2021 10:30 AM ET
Campaign: Ecocentricity Blog
Site of Leonardo da Vinci's vineyard at Casa degli Atellani in Milan. Photo Credit:

Ecocentricity Blog: A Drink with Leonardo

I have a ridiculous hypothetical for you. Just imagine if you could hop into a time traveling device and pop on back to Milan, Italy in 1512. There, you meet Leonardo da Vinci in the 60th year of his life, and you offer to treat him to a glass of wine. Settling in with your drink on a cool autumn afternoon, you proceed to explain that you are a traveler from far away who has come to show this famed inventor some amazing inventions. You then show him the chronological history of inventions that occurred after his death, such as the refracting telescope invented in 1608, the mechanical calculator invented in 1642, the steam engine invented in 1712, and so on. I wonder what would be the first invention that would make Leonardo think you were a magician instead of an inventor. What would be the first thing that left him truly dumbfounded?

My guess is the battery, first invented by Alessandro Volta in 1800. Leonardo would have had no real concept of electric current, so this would have been revolutionary for him. Just imagine his eyes when he saw a battery discharge and cause an electric arc, say between two metal wires. He would be like, “Dude! You just made a miniature lightning bolt! WTF?!?!?” Or, you know, however you would say that in Italian 500 years ago.

Batteries are truly amazing things, notwithstanding how ubiquitous they have become in society. They are portable electricity, and I can’t even imagine the last day I went without using one. They are everywhere, from our phones to our cars to our wristwatches to our computers, and on and on. And they keep getting better and better.

Over the past several decades, lithium-ion batteries have emerged as the best commercially-available form of battery. Researchers have continuously iterated them, resulting in a steady drumbeat of improved performance and declining cost. Along the way, lithium-ion batteries unlocked the potential of electric vehicles, and we are at the very beginning of the massive shift to electrified transportation as a result. That’s really good news when it comes to air pollution and climate change.

That said, I’m not sure that lithium-ion batteries will still be king of their own castle as this decade rolls on. Let me present for your humble consideration……the aluminum-ion battery. The reason this is news is because of claims coming from an Australian company called Graphene Manufacturing Group (GMG), which has created a graphene aluminum-ion battery that could be a gamechanger. The promises are quite alluring – more energy density, reduced risk of combustion, made of a cheap and abundant material, longer lifespan, and eye-popping recharge rates (perhaps as much as 60 times faster to recharge than lithium-ion). Moreover, this appears to be a technology now ready for deployment, since GMG plans to roll out commercial coin batteries later this year with an eye on vehicle batteries in 2024.

As an appropriate hat-tip, I first learned about the technology from The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe, a podcast I listen to regularly. If you’re more inclined to listen than read about the technology, here’s the episode where they cover it (click through to the midpoint of the episode). As they note, this new technology isn’t a sure thing, but they can’t find any “yeah, buts” with it either.

I’ll be keeping an eye on battery technology, so I may revisit all of this in the future. I’ll also keep an eye on time travel technology. I hear that 1512 was a good year for Italian wines.

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