By Alan Dean Foster
The history of science is replete with examples of men and women who spent their lives searching for answers to specific questions. The Curies and radium. Goodyear and the vulcanization of rubber. Pasteur and vaccination. The Wright bros. and powered flight. But there are also marvelous examples of scientific serendipity. Times when researchers and experimenters made discoveries without fully realizing to what uses their discovery might be put.
Based on pioneering theoretical work by Charles Townes and Arthur
Schawlow, Theodore Maiman constructed the first laser at Hughes Research
Laboratories back in 1960. Think about that a moment. 1960: Not so very long ago. I doubt any of them realized their work would lead to enormous changes in the entertainment industry, or in communications, or in medicine. They probably just thought, as a surprising number of scientists do, that their work was “cool.” It’s hard to imagine how contemporary society would function without the laser.
But we could manage without lasers long before we could without something that in its fashion is even more miraculous, and certainly more indispensable: the humble battery.
Ponder how many devices we take for granted that use batteries. From tiny ones that power hearing aids and cell phones to now-clumsy but once ubiquitous D-cells, from squarish 12 volts to giant batteries that back up hospitals and store megawatts from enormous solar and wind farms, to those that keep communications satellites functioning, we would have a hard time keeping our world running without batteries. So much so that people take them entirely for granted, like fresh winter fruits and veggies sourced from Chile or the infinite supply of argumentative folks who populate interminable talk shows.
For a long time, science had a hard time scaling batteries up. The same D-cell that can be found in contemporary police flashlights would also fit and work fine in the camp flashlight my father used in WWII. One reason is because it proved harder than expected to increase the energy density inside a battery. The quest became how to get more power out of the same size of unit. To do that, you needed to somehow change the chemistry, and also the way the battery’s power was managed.
Then along came, in fairly rapid succession, lithium-ion battery chemistry and thermal battery management.
More power and better-managed power in the same size and weight. A good example are the batteries used in some electric cars. These look almost exactly like standard AA batteries, but they pack a lot more power in the same size. Linked together by software and effectively managed, they can deliver power that half a century ago could only be imagined. It’s a breakthrough whose ramifications are only starting to be realized.
Electric cars. Yes, we have those now (we had them at the dawn of the automobile, but the heavy and dangerous lead-acid batteries that powered those early vehicles soon lost out to more energy-intensive petroleum derivatives). Also electric leaf blowers, electric snow blowers, and even electric hand warmers. Scale the systems up and you have electric lawnmowers, electric scooters, electric motorcycles, electric boats (Mercedes, among others, has been testing one for a while), electric snowmobiles (coming for sure), electric delivery vans (already flooding the market in Europe), electric garbage trucks (Sweden and Switzerland), electric city buses (everywhere now, with use increasing exponentially), electric school buses (Bluebird and other manufacturers), and electric 18-wheelers (Tesla, Thor, Nikola, Mercedes, BMW, Volvo, and others).
Which brings me to Prescott and the dawn of the electric airplane.
As you may have read recently in The Daily Courier, the Israeli startup Eviation is going to make Prescott its American headquarters. What separates, for the moment, Eviation’s aircraft from those already being flown by Airbus, Pipstrel, and other innovators is that they are working with small two- to four-seaters whereas Eviation intends to produce a nine-seater commuter aircraft. This will change short-range aviation as profoundly as the electric car is changing the development of ground-based vehicles.
Imagine such an aircraft taking off, not from Prescott, but from somewhere like Santa Monica city airport, or Van Nuys airport, in Los Angeles. A major reason for the lack of commercial service from such convenient centralized urban locations is the problem of noise. With electric aircraft, that problem goes away. So does the issue of toxic fumes from aviation fuel, and the danger of storing such explosive liquids in populated areas. Flying in such aircraft will be more akin to soaring in a glider than bumping along in a machine powered by noisy propellers. Instead of having to constantly monitor fuel gauges, fuel lines, fuel pressure, and much more, pilots will simply check a battery gauge, much as you periodically check the charge on your cellphone.
Downsizing the development, imagine living in Prescott, or anywhere else, and not hearing dozens of private planes puttering past overhead, day in and day out, like so many angry giant bees. I can’t wait to see, much less ride in, one of Eviation’s aircraft and the flood of imitators and competitors that is guaranteed to put in an appearance in the next five, ten years.
And as much as I love Prescott, I can’t help but imagine what the noise-polluted island of Manhattan will become when all vehicles allowed thereon become silent, odorless, and electric.
Heck, if I was the mayor, I’d be mandating it right now. …
Alan Dean Foster is author of more than 120 books, visitor to more than 100 countries, and still frustrated by the human species. Follow him at AlanDeanFoster.Com.