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Moore’s Law and battery technology: No dice

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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The REVAi/G-Wiz i electric car charging at an on-street station in London (Image: Wikipedia Commons)

Ever since Gordon Moore came up with the ubiquitous law bearing his name, it has been applied to paradigms far beyond those which it was intended for. This is perhaps not surprising; the history of science and technology – and of religion – has consistently demonstrated that the followers of a prophet usually extend his principles into domains which the prophet never really approved of.

Transistor technology does neatly seem to follow the Moore’s Law curve and a few other cutting-edge technologies like genome sequencing also seem to do this. Yet Moore’s proselytizers have extended his law to pretty much everything. The law especially seems to break down when applied to biomedical research; for instance a review from last year pointed out how the pace of drug development almost seems to have been following a reverse law, titled “Eroom’s Law” of declining productivity. Kurzweilian prognostications notwithstanding, research in neuroscience might follow the same trajectory, with a burst of rapid mapping of neuronal connectivity followed by a long, fallow period in which we struggle to duplicate these processes by artificial means.

The basic reasons why an emerging technology may not follow Moore’s Law is either because we tend to underestimate the complexity of the system to which the technology is applied, or we underestimate the basic principles of physics and chemistry which would inherently constrain a Moore-type breakthrough in that field. In case of medical research both these constraints seem to rear their ugly, emergent heads, and this is the main problem I have with futurists like Ray Kurzweil who seem to imagine an entire universe governed by Moore’s Law-type exponential progress in every field. Not all levels of complexity are created equal, and we just don’t have enough evidence to know how general Moore’s Law (which I think should simply be re-named “Moore’s Observation”) is in the world of practical problem-solving.

The argument about basic science limitations may especially apply to much-touted battery research whose proponents often seem to declare the next breakthrough in battery technology as being just around the corner. But a perspective from Fred Schlachter from the American Physical Society in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences puts a brake on these optimistic predictions. His point is simple: any kind of Moore’s Law for batteries may be limited by the fundamental chemistry inherent in a battery’s workings. This is unlike transistors, where finer lithography techniques have essentially enabled a repetitive application of miniaturization over the years.

There is no Moore’s Law for batteries. The reason there is a Moore’s Law for computer processors is that electrons are small and they do not take up space on a chip. Chip performance is limited by the lithography technology used to fabricate the chips; as lithography improves ever smaller features can be made on processors. Batteries are not like this. Ions, which transfer charge in batteries are large, and they take up space, as do anodes, cathodes, and electrolytes. A D-cell battery stores more energy than an AA-cell. Potentials in a battery are dictated by the relevant chemical reactions, thus limiting eventual battery performance. Significant improvement in battery capacity can only be made by changing to a different chemistry.

And even this different chemistry is going to be governed by fundamental parameters like the sizes of ions and the rates of chemical reactions and current flow. Schlachter goes on to note the problems that lithium batteries have recently encountered, including fires. There is thus no guarantee that there will be a breakthrough in battery technology that’s equivalent to that in computer technology over the last thirty years. And the article is right that while we are waiting for such breakthroughs, it’s a really good idea to push forward with improving energy efficiency in cars, making their lighter, smaller and and more powerful. Energy efficiency would not ultimately solve pollution problems since the cars would still be fueled by gasoline, but it would certainly take us a long way while we are waiting for the next battery breakthrough engineered by Moore’s Law. A law which may not really hold when it comes to next generation electric technology.

Ashutosh Jogalekar About the Author: Ashutosh (Ash) Jogalekar is a chemist interested in the history and philosophy of science. He considers science to be a seamless and all-encompassing part of the human experience. Follow on Twitter @curiouswavefn.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. OgreMk5 1:54 pm 04/4/2013

    Moore’s law as applied to batteries and transistors is more engineering than science. The science is well established and has been for long time. The technology used to implement those science principles are what improves. This is true even in genome sequencing.

    Neuroscience and drugs on the other hand are still science, not engineering. The scientific principles are not well understood and new discoveries can still make radical changes to our understanding. We’re still trying to figure out how these things work, not how to manipulate them more quickly or more efficiently.

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  2. 2. curiouswavefunction 2:12 pm 04/4/2013

    That’s true. However I think the piece is suggesting that the fundamental limits of science – whether the science itself is clearly understood or not – could translate into limits on engineering. You can’t, after all, circumvent faster-than-light travel by building a better spaceship.

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  3. 3. jcooktwo 2:30 pm 04/4/2013

    Computer chips and memory works with transistors. These transistors control information, not power. A transistor 10 times smaller operating at a tenth of the previous power is just fine for working with information, that is, 1′s and 0′s. On the other hand a 100 volt, 10 amp transistor power switch is still roughly the same size it was 50 years ago.

    Batteries work with power. A battery 10 times smaller delivers roughly 1/10 the energy and that does matter.

    I have also noticed batteries, flywheels, springs, etc for energy storage devices all seem to be in the range of 10-40 watt-hours per pound. Improvements usually mean material changes and even then are not factors of 10.

    Genome sequencing is a form of information processing again.

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  4. 4. bicyclemichaela 3:21 pm 04/4/2013
    I hope I can buy one of these nanotube batteries before I have to buy another lithium (LiFePO4) battery for use in my electric bicycle. I don’t know about following Moore’s Law with batteries, but there are a lot of battery companies out there and a lot of researchers making developments that could go farther than this pessimistic article predicts.

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  5. 5. RDH 3:22 pm 04/4/2013

    There are some things common between today’s computers and batteries. For instance, I have a dual-core processor and I have a dual-core flashlight.

    However, my newest dual-core flashlight is essentially the same size as an old dual-core flashlight I have. Oh, and like today’s smart phones, my old flashlight can react when I “shake” it.

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  6. 6. TTLG 4:16 pm 04/4/2013

    All successful new technologies initially have exponential growth that rolls off when the fundamental limitations are reached. The only difference with integrated circuits is that the length of time before that happened has been unusually long. Given the amount of work being put into battery technology, I would expect the growth period to be pretty short unless some new breakthrough comes along.

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  7. 7. sault 5:05 pm 04/4/2013

    Even though ion charge carriers in batteries are a million times larger than electrons, they’re still small enough to not really be an issue in terms of battery volume. The lithium ions in a lithium ion battery make up a vanishingly small percentage of the battery’s mass and volume for example. And as a previous poster mentioned, nanomaterials are being developed that can reliably store and release charge much more effectively than current electrodes. So worrying about the “size” of ions being a limiting factor in battery development is not warranted. Yes, battery casing mass is an issue, electrolyte stability is an issue, and even thermal management is one of the issues that battery developers have to deal with, but ion “size” is not.

    And mentioning battery fires when any serious look at what happened (no specifics on what fires these actually were are given, but I can guess) clearly shows that incorrect testing procedure was the cause, not the underlying safety of the battery itself, so this is also not warranted.

    I agree that “Moore’s Observation” cannot be applied to batteries directly. Moore only focused on the number of transistors per unit area and the resulting gains in computing power it allowed. Batteries have several different performance factors that are improving rapidly, with cost, energy density, charge time and cycle life being the most important. And since there are so many different components that contribute to these performance metrics, an continual exponential increase in any one of them is impossible.

    However, improvements are being made on several fronts, including new chemistries, materials and controls among others. They all add up to ever better electric vehicles. Keep in mind that petroleum-powered cars didn’t experience “Moore’s Observation”-type growth in capabilities either, yet they still came to dominate world transportation.

    And besides, you’re only talking about half the issue when you leave out the pollution, climate change, resource depletion and geopolitical entanglements that are associated with petroleum. In addition, oil has enjoyed over a century of uninterrupted government support and the benefits of incumbency that have accrued during that century as well as the massive economies of scale oil infrastructure has achieved. Even if you ignore these factors, just like the market does today, electric cars like the Nissan LEAF and Chevy Volt still sell very well. If we incorporated more of the damages from fossil fuels into their cost, maybe we would have European gas prices and electric cars would be in greater demand. Regardless, Chevy and Nissan can hardly build these things fast enough to satisfy demand as it is, but stacking the deck against EVs as this article does is not the way to have a balanced conversation about the merits of these vehicles.

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  8. 8. jec477 5:51 pm 04/4/2013

    The “limiting nutrient” for automobile energy efficiency may be stopsigns.
    A vehicle in motion has on board kinetic energy proportional to it’s mass and velocity squared. Each stop and start requires that kinetic energy to be replaced again and again. Once accelerated to cruising speed, the only energy requirements are needed to overcome a small amount of rolling resistance and a substantial wind resistance which is also proportional to the square of the velocity. Slow and steady could be the prescription, whatever the energy source, but that will require “reengineering” our road networks. Traffic circles anyone?

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  9. 9. Quantumburrito 7:57 pm 04/4/2013

    Moore’s Law deals not only with miniaturization but also with cost; a larger number of transistors on a chip also leads to significantly lower cost. So in one sense what this article is saying is that the price of electric cars may not be able to drop below a certain value. Plus, Moore’s Law may not apply to gasoline but it’s clear that gasoline-based cars survive for the simple reason that gasoline is ridiculously cheap. And with the current huge expansion in shale oil it seems it’s going to stay cheap for a very long time.

    Thus the development of electric cars may run against two formidable barriers; Moore’s Law and cheap gas. This might mean that they will be perpetually expensive unless the government decides to tax gas.

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  10. 10. geojellyroll 9:04 pm 04/4/2013

    Battery efficiency is limited by physics…not technology. The properties of matter and energy are immutable.

    Quantumburrito…the goverments of the world do tax gas and have done so for decades. Battery development is no further along in Germany with much higher fuel taxes than in the USA. The physics is the same regardeless of jurisdiction.

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  11. 11. phalaris 4:43 am 04/5/2013

    At last a bit of realism on this important topic. The claim that dramatic improvements in battery technology are just around the corner is the fig-leaf the greenies use to cover their nakedness on renewables.

    Predicatable that Sault would try to hid his embarassment behind acres of verbiage.

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  12. 12. sault 11:04 am 04/5/2013

    Predictable that phalaris doesn’t even want to discuss the facts and goes straight for the ad hominem attack. 2 glaring signs that they don’t really have an argument to make anyway and just spew venom to poison the well for others.

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  13. 13. jacpoir 12:07 pm 04/5/2013

    Actually, Phalaris, the verbiage is the article itself, and a bit in your own comment ;-) – Sault’s rational analysis in measured tones sounds perfect to me – We are involved heavily with electric boat propulsion ( and the non-emotional and very successful CEO there was almost teary-eyed when he read it. Excellent writing by Sault and spot-on appraisal of where things stand with lithium-ion batteries.

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  14. 14. curiouswavefunction 5:07 pm 04/5/2013

    Note to commenters: The last comment was truncated. This is not the place for ad hominem criticism of Sci Am. I urge all commenters to criticize constructively, stick to the facts and criticize what’s said in the post rather than what they think is being said. Please read the post carefully; at no point does it or the original piece say that research on electric cars is futile. It’s rather silly if an uncontroversial and mildly-worded piece like this makes the CEO of a company “teary-eyed”.

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  15. 15. string_beery 5:09 pm 04/5/2013

    let’s not forget the capacitor – these also store electricity and are rechargeable (typically, much faster than any battery)…ultracapacitor technology isn’t there yet either, but could conceivably challenge battery technology…

    back to Moore’s Law though – my 10 year old pc still has a faster cpu than most of what i see advertised in the retail stores today…memory has progressed impressively since then, but cpu’s maybe not so much…

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  16. 16. syzygyygyzys 8:12 am 04/6/2013

    Mr. Jogalekar (curiouswavefunction),

    I respectfully suggest that you begin deleting ad hominem comments. If you search under the offending user names, I believe you will find a relatively small number of commenters. From my observation of other environmental blog posts they have made (and they post everywhere on everything), attempts at reason will prove unproductive. Your blog, your rules, your choice.

    Good article by the way.

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  17. 17. jeffreyleefunk 3:07 am 07/26/2013

    many technologies experience rapid improvements. some of them are because of reducing feature sizes such as in ICs, MEMs, DNA sequencers, and magnetic storage. others are because of new materials such as in LEDs, OLEDs,organic transistors. see my paper in may issue of california management review or my slide share account

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  18. 18. thinayr 6:03 pm 10/20/2014

    I recently made a $50 bet with my dad that by fall 2019, (5 years from now), there will be an electric motorcycle on the market that can cover 500 miles in 10 hours (including full or partial recharge time). This is a rough approximation of a “full day” on a cross-country moto, of which my dad does several per year on his “petrol-powered stink-wheels.”

    I based my hopeful prediction on the premise that electric motorcycles have been increasing in all specs at a near-exponential rate. My 2011 Zero is lucky to go 20 miles on a charge, yet today’s Zeros are pushing 180mi… a nearly 10 fold increase in 3 years. I must guiltily admit that these kinds of stats (not to mention the increase in HP, torque, top speed etc.) led me to expect some kind of Moorish principle at play

    This article certainly discourages such hopefulness, but some of the commenters point out the possibility for new chemistries and components which could attain the better battery performance EVs will need to have. So I’m still going to nurture my wild optimism that the incredible gains in EV technology will continue.

    Last little comment, in regards to “energy efficiency” for gasoline engines, do a google search for Tom Ogel and decide for yourself. I am convinced we have had engine technology capable of well beyond 100mi/gal since early in the 20th century. It is pretty obvious that if your business is pushing petrol, increased efficiency = reduced profits.

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