Immediately after the first electric appliance was created, these devices were refined and increased in complexity. It seems odd today, but some old electric appliances sometimes had cords covered with fabric that just weren't safe when compared with the devices you can find in your local department store today. The way you use electricity is also changing, even if the evolution goes too slowly for you to notice. Here are some interesting advances that will improve the way you use and pay for your electricity.
Many people want to put solar panels on their homes, but are intimidated by their cost and size. Thankfully, science marches on, and, according to EurekAlert, Boston College researchers have figured out how to make thinner solar cells that also produce large amounts of electricity. The challenge was how to harness the energy in "hot" electrons: those mobile electrons at a lower energy state that can sometimes be harmful for electronic devices. Before long, your home could be creating most of its own electricity after this development is put to more practical use.
When you think batteries, you likely think about those round metal bits that go into your remote control or the unseen power source in your mp3 player. This could all change, thanks to scientists at Stanford University. Science Daily reports about the possibility of turning paper into batteries. Once the surface of a piece of paper is coated with carbon nanotubes and silver nanowires, the paper is able to transmit energy quickly and store a lot of it. (The prefix "nano," from the Greek word for "dwarf," means that the tubes and wires are microscopic.) The scientists who developed the technology think it will improve the efficiency of the world's power grid because it allows energy producers to store the electricity they make for release at a better time. Imagine: your notebook could carry a bunch of electricity in addition to your good ideas.
A game-changing electric appliance is on the horizon for many households. Plug-in electric cars will be in your local dealership by 2012. Instead of pulling up to the gas pump every few days, you will simply plug your car into an outlet in your garage each night. (This means many of us will have to organize the things in our garages to make some room for our new cars!) While you'll save money by not purchasing gasoline, you will have to purchase the electricity going into your car's battery.
One of the many challenges scientists must overcome during the development of batteries for these cars is how to transmit the power to the electric motor fast enough. (We should all admit it: we love acceleration when we're behind the wheel.) Well, researchers working under Professor Ehud Gazit at Tel Aviv University have been able to create tiny peptide structures that, when examined under a microscope, look like a lush lawn. As Tree Hugger states, this material can be used as a supercapacitor. When incorporated into the new batteries under development, these peptides could zip the energy along quickly. (Interestingly, these materials also make it easier to clean solar panels.)
Plug-in electric cars will probably become much more popular when more homes are equipped with a smart meter. These advanced devices will allow you to consume more energy during off-peak hours, when your utility likely charges you less for each kilowatt/hour you use. (The price is lower because of good old supply and demand. Less electricity is used at night, so each unit is slightly cheaper.) Smart meters also expand your power monitoring options and can generate e-mailed reports that can break down your energy use by single appliances.
Perhaps most importantly, those smart meters will be tied together to create a smart power grid. Many of those blackouts and other interruptions you hear about in the news will be prevented when this grid is in place. It's all about communication; the meters in your home will tell power substations where more electricity needs to go and when. (In many places, the primary roadblock for adoption of these meters is their relatively high initial cost. When you're presented with the choice, remember: they may cost more to begin with, but they will save you money in the long run.)
Once American industry takes advantage of these and other scientific advances, we'll enjoy energy that is good for both the environment and our wallets. (If we're very lucky, we could be driving around an electric car powered by a notebook on the passenger seat!)