Thursday, May 21, 2015

STEM, the evolution of technology, and Elon Musk's new solar batteries

Earlier this month, Elon Musk and his company, Tesla Motors Inc., announced two new batteries designed for use with rooftop solar electricity systems--one for large-scale industrial use and one for homes or small businesses. This piece, on the announcement, comes from Scientific American.

Later analysis suggests that these batteries are pretty neat, but they are not very powerful. One home battery is  strong enough to power about one or two window air conditioners, which is only a small portion of a home's total electricity use. That fact didn't stop 38,000 people from ordering the new batteries ahead of time.

Tesla is perhaps best known for its push into the electric car market, with the 2008 Roadster. That vehicle cost the customer around $70,000. It was an incredibly cool, technologically advanced car that didn't require the use of gas. Analysts thought that only very rich individuals would buy it because of the price, which turned out to be true. But this very expensive, very intriguing car made a splash. It showed that some people did think electric cars were cool. It made people with less disposable income ask other car manufacturers for more affordable electric cars. In 2010 Nissan launched the electric Leaf for a mainstream market. And as you probably know, Tesla didn't invent the electric car. Electric cars have been around in various forms since the early 19th century. But as time and engineering progress, electric cars (and millions of other kinds of technology) change and improve. Many different people work on different components of technology, and their collaboration and hard work lead to really interesting, useful tools.

So what does this mean, particularly in the area of STEM? Well, to me it says a few things. 1. People are interested in new sources of energy, particularly those that don't come from fossil fuels. 2. People who have lots of money are willing to put money down on new concepts, even if those ideas aren't yet cost-effective. 3. That means, to me, that individuals are willing to spend money on the concept of innovation in areas they find valuable, knowing that technology will likely improve over time, particularly if there's a clear interest in said technology. So we as a society would benefit from trying out new ideas, even if they don't seem practical or marketable up front.

Do you have students who are interested in this kind of story? Well, then, we have books for you (and for them): a STEM Trailblazers Bio of Elon Musk; a Searchlight Books title on solar power; a First Step Nonfiction title on sunlight, and Key Discoveries in Engineering and Design, from our Science Discovery Timelines series. And let me know if you have other STEM books you'd like to see! We're always looking for fascinating ideas for new books.

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