178: NASA’s Batteries at Home, and more

Matt and Sean talk about NASA’s nickel hydrogen batteries uses at home, some unpleasantness at Matt’s new home, and more from the mailbag.

Watch the Undecided with Matt Ferrell episode, Why This NASA Battery May Be The Future of Energy Storage https://youtu.be/2zG-ZrC4BO0?list=PLnTSM-ORSgi4dFnLD9622FK77atWtQVv7

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On today’s episode of still to be determined, we’re going to be talking about how do we stop the NASA scientists from having all the fun. Hey everybody. As usual, I’m Sean Farrell. I’m a writer. I write some sci fi, I write some stuff for kids, including my recently released the sinister secrets of singe available everywhere.

I’m also just generally curious about technology. Luckily for me, my brother is that mad of undecided with Matt Farrell. Which takes a look at emerging tech and its impact on our lives. And today we’re going to be talking about what space scientists have been playing with for years, decades, all the way back to the middle of the last century, and we’re only now realizing we can use it here.

So how are you doing, Matt? I’m doing good. It’s a little

hot and steamy, but it’s been a good weekend.

Yes, it is. I mean, I literally last night was having a conversation with my partner. The two of us were saying, is this. Is this the era right now where the global warming debate stops being a debate and it starts becoming a, what do we do about this?

We have broken the planet and yes, it is. It’s not just uncomfortable. It’s actually scary to me to have temperatures where day by day, they’re like, yeah, another record breaker, another record breaker. This is going to be the hottest year ever recorded. And these trends, the past eight

years, the past eight years have been the hottest year ever recorded.

Yes. We keep beating it year after year for the past eight years. It’s like at some point people are going to realize this is not a scam. It’s not BS. Yes. But unfortunately. That’s also not the world we live in. There is one little anecdote. I want to tell from this weekend yesterday, I just went out to our new house that’s being built and it has electricity, but the HVAC system has not been turned on yet.

And it has been ungodly hot and humid about the inside of the house is actually a very comfortable temperature. But the humidity level inside the house is kind of shocking. And so my wife and I went there yesterday because we were going to start hanging up some shelves in some of the closets. The house is still getting finished by the, the, the crew.

So we can’t do anything in the house, but we were like putting a shelf in the closet 10 minutes into trying to hang these shelves. Sean

drenched in sweat

was just dripping off of me. I turned around to, to my wife, Sue, and she was. Trenched in sweat and she wasn’t even really doing anything. She was standing there.

And the both of us were just like, you know, our shirts were just like, it looked like we had took a dip in a pool fully clothed. It was, it was awful. And we got that one set of closet shelving installed. And then we were, we had three more closets to do. And we’re like, nope, we’re out. We can’t keep doing


We’re going to leave. My little heat anecdote is that last summer, we’ve lived in this apartment now for, Five years, I believe, maybe even six. And last summer was the first summer where my partner was like the kitchen. When we try to use the kitchen in any way, when it’s this hot, the moment you turn, we have a thermostat right outside the kitchen door and on a day like this, it’ll say like it’s 84 the only air conditioning we have are in the bedrooms.

So that little thermostat in the hallway, 84 degrees, as soon as you turn on the stove. Turn on the oven. God forbid you turn on the oven now. 90 95. Like it’s ungodly. So last summer, my partner was like, let’s get a fan for the window. Let’s do something. And so I went last summer and bought a fan that was actually a little sophisticated in the it’s dual fan.

You can switch the fans. So they blow different directions in out both. Temperature gauge, different speeds, remote control, all those sorts of things. Didn’t really need all the bells and whistles, but I was like, get the one that seems like it’s the biggest and best for this job, then, then try and go cheap.

And a couple of days ago, I go into the kitchen in the morning. I’m going to make some coffee. It’s already very warm in there. So I go and turn on the fan and the fan does not turn on. And I keep trying and I look up online, what can happen with these fans? So like, if something happens with the power supply unit, then it can shut down and not turn back on.

So unplug it for a while. I did that no effect. So I start trying to figure out like what has happened. And I realized what happened was that the fan had been removed and put back in because of a storm recently. And the cord had not been put back in precisely the right location. It had been put a little too close to the back of our toaster oven.

And the toaster oven upon being run had actually melted the cord. So inside the electric cord, I mean, we, I’m very pleased that we didn’t have an electrical fire. We didn’t have something worse happen, but clearly something inside the cord had been damaged, which created now a broken fan. So I had to go buy a new one and I picked it up on my way back from a doctor’s appointment.

So I’m walking back from. I take the subway from the doctor’s appointment to the station. I go from the station to the store where I bought the fan originally. I buy another copy of the fan. I walk back to the apartment. I’m outside walking for a total of maybe eight minutes. I put the fan, new fan in the window.

And as I’m standing there turning the new fan on, I realized I am wet. Like I just stepped out of the shower from head to toe. It is levels of moisture that I didn’t realize I had until that moment. And I realized as I’m looking down, sweat drips off of my eyes and eyelashes onto my glasses. So now I’m looking through droplets of water and thinking I’m going to have to take another shower to get this all off of me.

I ended up stripping down entirely the entire outfit I was wearing. Was I couldn’t put it back on. It was the difficulty of getting the shirt off. I thought this is what toddlers go through. Toddlers are just like, Oh, stuck. Like I felt like I was trapped and dying in my own skin. It was awful. It is an amusing.

Events in, in isolation, but it is indicative of what we are going through and the scary reality being it’s getting hotter and hotter, it’s going to get worse. News story that broke last week about the North Atlantic, about the temperatures rising so much that they are concerned that is going to have a catastrophic effect on the bio, the livability.

In that part of the ocean for certain types of ocean life and ocean temperatures around Florida are topping. They’re hitting hot tub temperatures. A hundred degrees. Yeah. Hot tub around Florida. Hot temperatures. Yes. Get into the ocean to cool off. Good luck. You’re getting into a hot tub. It is. We’re hitting nightmare scenario.

And unfortunately, I think a lot of people start recognizing that. Like recently on social media, people were taking pictures in front of outdoor thermostats where it was saying it’s 115 degrees. And they’re like thumbs up and standing next to the, the, these things. I’m like, it’s not amusement. It’s not, it’s not funny.

It’s scary. And we need to all collectively engage in the best way possible. Yes. Some people

are looking at it as if it’s a novelty. Like I, I was here when the record was broke and it’s like, um, you’ll have to do it next year to stay there. Next year.

Yeah. You keep coming back annually because this is not a novelty.

Yeah. Yeah. That picture is not going to be the cute anecdote you think it is. You’re going to be sitting in an underground bunker showing that picture to your grandchild and saying, we used to live on the surface.

That got

dark. They got dark really fast. Welcome to still to be determined everybody. Yeah. So before we get into today’s discussion, which is going to be about Matt’s most recent episode, which was a examination of NASA’s battery technology, which is now half a century old, but is just finding its footing here on earth.

I wanted to share some comments from our most recent episode, which was Matt’s long form discussion around robotic surgery developments. And there were some comments on that episode that I thought were interesting, such as this one from Brendan Cummings, who mentions that his comment is effectively. If you blink, advancements will take place in the moment that you blink.

Brendan writes, I had spine surgery as a kid in the late 90s and was told on a followup within a year, Oh, we’re doing that laparoscopically now cuts the healing time in half. Just a good reminder that these advancements take place sometimes in rapid succession. And I know from anecdotal experience in my own life, I know people who had.

knee replacement surgery within just a few years of each other and the recovery time and the issues for recovery. For the people who had the surgery literally two years after the previous people, miles apart, you would have thought they’d had the surgery in different decades, not just a few years apart.

So these advancements are very, very quick. There was also this from Dave McCracken, who wrote, it sounds pretty clearly that this product is aimed at abdominal surgery. I would like to hear whether they are working on extending their technology to other parts of the body, in particular, cardiac and thoracic surgery.

Do you know anything that the people that you interviewed talk about any other places where this might be targeted? I

have, I’ve talked to a couple of people about this kind of stuff and they’re always. It’s going to sound bad cagey. And it’s, I can understand why, because there’s probably proprietary issues that they don’t want to let something out of the bag too early.

There’s other things of like, well, we’re focused because usually the response is, well, we’re right now, we’re focused on this. And so it’s like, they’re just trying to get that passed through FDA approvals and to get approvals to actually start using this in hospitals. And then they’ll start to kind of expand, but they 100% are trying to expand beyond just what they’re.

Currently doing right now. I mean, they, without saying what they’re going to do, it’s clear that they have bigger ambitions, but they’re just trying to focus on what’s in front of them because the thing that’s in front of them right now is a major hurdle. It’s like, if they can’t get this first thing on the market and approved the rest of their business kind of falls apart.

Yeah. That’s why they’re Their, their, their language, their communications. It’s clear. They’ve had a lot of training from the PR department where they can say and not say,

and you’d want to, you’d want to focus on the thing that you feel like is the closest to a slam dunk. Not that this is easy, but to say between saying like, Oh, we’re going to be doing ocular and cranial surgery and abdominal surgery, the abdomen sounds like it’s the easier of the two.

Go with that one. But things like cardiac thoracic and like I just mentioned cranial, I can only imagine the advantages that you would have if you were able to use a robotic system that could be inserted through maybe even like brain surgery through an opening in the nasals. as opposed to drilling holes is the potential there is remarkable.

Yeah. The

less invasive we can

be, the better. Yeah. There was this from Dave who wrote still waiting for nanites. Me too, Dave. Me too. Me too. Molecular sized, even currently healing is done by the body at that scale. Would love to inject or slather a patient or cocoon. An injury after all nature is the best teacher.

I think that that is like the sci fi ness of it. Of course, tickles a certain part of my brain, but the reality is just yesterday I was walking along and I’ve had a strange, not a strange. I know exactly what it is. A ticking in my ear. Occasionally as I’m walking around and my body shifts, I hear a ticking.

I know exactly what it is. It is excess earwax. It is something as simple as. As that, but it is not the kind of thing, you know, you buy, you go to the store and you buy Q tips. If you look at a Q tips package, do you see Matt a warning on the label? It says, do not put in your ear. Yep. I love that. Clearly a device that was designed to, to go not only into one ear, you turn around, you got one for the other ear too, two in one.

And clearly in the 1950s, they were like, let’s sell these in the store. So everybody can shove these in their ears. Years ago by, and they’re like lawsuits. So let’s make sure there’s a warning on it saying, do not put in your ears. Fantastic. So you cannot use these efficiently or safely. And I know from previous experience, going to doctors, having my ears cleaned, that is what is required.

But as I was walking along yesterday, I said to my partner. I wish we had nanites that I could just put in my ears, little tiny robots that chug along and they look for earwax and they destroy the earwax. Maybe they even turn into fuel. And then when they’re lonely, they build little sculptures of themselves out of earwax and they have little tiny ear tea parties with themselves, little, little nanite families, little nanite families working away inside my ear.

I don’t even know they’re there, but I live happily knowing they’re taking care of that earwax. The only problem is I probably set off metal detectors at the airport. There was also questions in the comments from multiple people who were wondering about the potential for the robotic devices to incorporate a multiplicity of hands or devices on them, sort of maybe crab like or spider like different tools for different jobs on one device.

And in my imagining that also would incorporate the potential for there being multiple doctors. In charge of certain devices, multiple levers or the doctor with multiple tools at his disposal. Was there any discussion around the idea of moving away from a basic setup into something more complex in that regard?

No. It was mainly just around this is from a one to one relationship that the surgeon, it’s like an extension of themselves. So you’re talking about very complex systems. And so it’s like the robotics of the doctor, the surgeon to that one to one relationship in combination with software that can help alleviate the doctor doing unnecessary damage.

Like we talked about how, like, it could prevent the doctor from accidentally pressing too hard. And.

That was also part of the discussion, the haptic versus predictive, correct? The predictive nature of it is really fascinating.

That’s where the focus is, but you could totally see this like fast forward 20 years.

It’s like, yeah, you totally see some little thing comes out with has like 10 different little hands that come out and there’s a whole bunch of crazy stuff. And it may be just one surgeon in combination with some kind of. Software machine learning stuff that is like doing stuff to help like little nurses and they’re helping the doctor.

Yeah. So it’s like, you can see that happening at some point, but that’s way, way, way off in the future.

All of it’s very fascinating and I look forward to potentially in the future us revisiting this as these advancements. Continue on now to Matt’s most recent episode. This is why this NASA battery may be the future of energy storage.

This is his episode from July 18th, 2023. And as was wrapped up in the comment from CF who wrote, it amazes me that so many technologies we use today were largely created or perfected over 50 years ago. It’s, this is one of those cases. These batteries have literally been orbiting the planets or going off into deep space for decades.

And yet we didn’t really try to use them here. Why would you? I wonder what’s this. Go ahead. Go

ahead. It’s the same thing with NASA has solar panels, not NASA. It’s just some of the solar panels that are put onto satellites are so efficient. They would blow every solar panel that you can get here on earth away.

But they also cost 10 times the price. So it’s like, it’s the reason, the reason that they are so efficient is because they’re using really expensive materials and they’re really cutting edge. And yeah, you can’t do that at mass scale. Cause it would be so cost prohibitive. Nobody would be able to afford to

buy it.

But of

course, NASA deep pockets send some of them in space. You need something to perform super well in space. So you can

afford that extra cost. It’s a little more boutique. There were comments about the effectiveness of these batteries, even in space use, and somebody commented that on the international space station, they actually replaced these types of batteries with lithium ion recently in the past.

And by recently, I mean, the past few years. So is this a case of sort of leapfrog like 1 technology? bouncing over one and the original one becomes a little passe and then potentially leapfrogging again for a different use where they’re going to change places in that way. Yes, a

little bit. It’s kind of, um, probably when they started using nickel hydrogen batteries, well, one lithium ion batteries weren’t really a thing 50 years ago.

So you have a really good battery technology. You start using it. It’s been the old standby for so long. And then here comes lithium ion and lithium ion has hit a point today where the efficiency, the costs, the durability are really good. And so it has kind of leap, not leapfrog, but it’s past what nickel hydrogen has been doing for that specific use case.

So they can switch it back on top of which the international space station is something where it’s like, You’re, you have a regular missions up and down. So if you have to change out those batteries in five years or eight years or 10 years, you can do that. If you’re doing a deep space mission, you want a battery that’s going to last you 30 years.

So it’s like there’s specific use cases where you’re going to be doing stuff like this versus like a satellite where you’re not going to be going to it ever again. You want to have a battery that lasts a long time. So you have to make those choices based on the use case.

Christopher Lubner wrote, these nickel hydrogen batteries have all the benefits of durability, but they suffer from high self discharge and low voltage.

I got to play with a few of them made by the Space Data Corporation. The cool thing about them is that they can take overcharging well, highly recommended for mission critical solar use. They contain lots of platinum and palladium, but they do show up at surplus auctions occasionally confused with other high voltage components.

It, the overcharge aspect is interesting to me is what he’s suggesting that. You would want to potentially allow the battery to overcharge because you have solar panel activity and energy generation that you’d want to take advantage of that energy generation for as long as possible and allow it to overcharge.

Yeah, that would be

you don’t have to worry about overcharging like a lithium ion battery. It’s, it’s, it’s a different. thing. So it’s not you overcharge a lithium ion battery, uh, explodes. It’d be problematic for something like this. It’s safer. You can do this kind of stuff. And, and his point about the self discharge rate being much higher is absolutely true.

This comes back to the, the, the use case. If you’re doing this for grid energy storage, which is what they’re trying to be used for, you’re slamming those batteries up and down. nonstop. It’s not like you’re storing this energy for hours or beyond several hours to days or weeks. It’s like you’re using it almost immediately.

So it’s like you charge it over the course of the day. And then over the evening, it’s getting slammed down or during a demand usage in the early evening, it’s getting slammed. So it’s like you’re the self discharge issue is a non issue for this specific use case, which is why Enervenue, the company that’s really trying to make this a thing is focused on it.


was this from BeowulfNode who wrote, I’m surprised, I’m going to change that, I’m surprised to asking you, Could you, could you compare these to the existing sodium ion batteries from CATL and BYD, which are cheaper per kilowatt hour with their first generation being 77 dollars. per kilowatt hour for the initial purchase.

However, the number of charge cycles may be significantly less at about two, three to 4, 000 cycles before the battery gets to 80% capacity. So what he’s suggesting, you’ve talked about sodium ion batteries before. Could you give us a quick recap of the difference between the sodium ion and this type of battery with the nickel hydrogen?


I mean, obviously one’s using nickel and hydrogen. The other one’s using like literally just salt. Is this. Like table salt, it’s, it’s sodium. So it’s like, it’s abundant. It’s super cheap. Sodium ion is probably going to be one of the basically future battery technologies that kind of like dominates most things just because it’s going to be so cheap to make.

So the point he’s raising is a hundred percent accurate where sodium at this point, it does appear to be much cheaper than Enervenues, nickel hydrogen battery per kilowatt hour, but it cannot compete for the. Lifespan and the hammering it for charge discharge rate, at least at this point. So again, this is where it’s like, there’s no one silver bullet to solve all the problems.

It’s like for grid energy storage, you need a battery that can take a pounding. And that’s why nickel hydrogen looks really appealing for that solution or sodium ion at this point. Not so much. It doesn’t mean that it’s a bad choice. It just, it’s really going to come down to the specific use case. I keep saying that I feel like a broken record when I say that it feels like I’m a cheap out, but it’s, it’s not actually very relevant when you’re talking about these different better technologies.

I don’t, this is not a criticism of anybody that’s like really excited about specific battery technology, but we have to keep in mind that we’re not picking teams here. It’s not like sodium ion or bust or nickel hydrogen or bust. But when you’re talking about specific use cases, there are some batteries that start to stand out and be like, Oh, that’s one too.

It’s really looking at, cause that looks like it’s the silver bullet for this use case. So it’s like, I hesitate to compare sodium to nickel hydrogen for that kind of just overarching kind of comparison. It’s like I would be comparing it for grid scale, which would be the fair apples to apples comparison.

And in that case, I think sodium ion kind of at this point falls a

little bit behind. You hit the nail, you hit multiple nails on the head there with, as usual, we always go back to the refrain best tool for this job. But also the idea that this is not, we don’t have money on this. We don’t, we’re not, you can literally be invested in stock and that’s a different issue, of course, but this is not picking a winner.

To defeat all the others. It is really looking at them in an apples to apples and oranges to oranges. Best use scenario and trying to figure out, are we using something that is not only sustainable, but efficient and affordable and affordability and access to the materials that are going to make these things are going to be critical.

It may be the case that sodium wins simply because sodium is. So plentiful everywhere. So finally, there was this from silent WF who put in a comment that is similar to something that I’m constantly thinking about when we have these discussions with so many grid scale battery technology videos you’ve made.

Could you create a video where you summarize and follow up on their deployment? We’ve talked about this before as maybe a semi annual thing. And maybe it’s time for that to be back in the rotation for sometime either later this year. Here we are, we’re on the verge of being in August. So knowing your schedule, the way I do, I could anticipate a video that might summarize these things maybe in December or maybe early next year, which seems appropriate.

So just something to keep in mind for you and also for our viewers and listeners. Let us know if you’d be interested in that kind of summarizing video that takes a big picture look at grid scale storage and also jump into the comments and let us know what other kinds of summary videos would be, would you be interested in what?

Other topics has Matt talked about that you’d be interested in revisiting from a bird’s eye view perspective and taking a look at the developments across the board. Let us know. Thank you so much, everybody, for your comments. They do drive the content of the show and they help drive the content of undecided with Matt Farrell, which is of course our mothership.

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