Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 2776: ASIMOV & ENERGY STORAGE

John Lienhard presents Haleh Ardebili

Today, our guest Haleh Ardebili talks about Isaac Asimov and Energy Storage. The University of Houston’s College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

Isaac Asimov is one of my favorite science fiction writers. He was an inspiring figure in my childhood. With novels like Caves of Steel 1 and Naked Sun 2, he took me on journeys to fantastical futuristic worlds where robots roamed among humans. His humanoid robots were active members of societies with technologies that were advanced beyond imagination ...

Caves of Steel

Robots must have continuous energy to move around and function among humans. That means they must either use a super battery that can last a long time. (Asimov called that battery atomic) Or they must use rechargeable batteries.

Honda has one of the world's most advanced humanoid robots. It’s called ASIMO 3. It can walk, talk, climb stairs, and even run. It can respond to people’s instructions. ASIMO stands for Advanced Step in Innovative Mobility.

In 2007, for the first time, Honda’s ASIMO could charge its own battery 4. When the robot's battery level drops to a certain point, the robot seeks out and walks to the closest charging station. It backs up to the charger, makes a connection and recharges its own battery.

Thousands of years ago, early humans used basic nature-enabled methods to store energy for their survival. They used ice to keep their meat fresh. They used large stones on cliffs as weapons. These are examples of thermal and mechanical energy storage.

As our civilizations advanced, so did the need for more sophisticated storage. Lithium is one of the lightest elements. It’s located at the top left of the periodic table — right below hydrogen. Lithium is also highly electropositive. That means it wants to give away its electron. For these reasons, Lithium ion batteries are widely popular. They’re used in computer laptops, cellphones, iPods — and robots like ASIMO.

When we think of energy storage, we often think ‘battery’. But that’s only one form of energy storage called electrochemical. Many other forms of energy storage are also available. They include electrical storage like capacitors, chemical storage like hydrogen fuel cells, mechanical storage like flywheels and many more.

In our quest to store more energy and release it more quickly, we’ve been exploring nano-structured materials with features as small as a billionth of a meter. Nanomaterials offer enhanced properties that are not attainable with larger structures.

And speaking of nano, another book by Isaac Asimov comes to mind called Fantastic Voyage5. It’s about people shrunk small enough to travel inside the human body… At the age of nano-technology, Lithium ion batteries, and humanoid robots — we may not be too far from Isaac Asimov’s fantastic worlds ...

I’m Haleh Ardebili at the University of Houston, where we’re interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)


  1. Isaac Asimov, Caves of Steel (The Robot Series), Random House Publishing Group, 1991
  2. Isaac Asimov, Naked Sun (The Robot Series), Random House Publishing Group, 1991
  3. http://asimo.honda.com/
  4. http://world.honda.com/news/2007/c071211Enabling-Multiple-ASIMO-to-Work/
  5. Isaac Asimov, Fantastic Voyage, Random House Publishing Group, 1988

This episode was first aired on March 6, 2012

The Naked Sun

The Asimov robot images are from Wikipedia.



The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-2012 by John H. Lienhard.