Mapping the future of continents and batteries

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Sandy Schaffer
The Earth is always moving beneath our feet. What seems permanent, still and solid is in fact constantly creeping. It’s easy to forget that as we race through our busy days, measuring time with digital clocks rather than the achingly slow beat of rock.

In “Evidence falls into place for once and future supercontinents“, contributing correspondent Alexandra Witze explores the long-term motions of the planet’s portable continents. Within this blue dot, Witze reminds us, a swirling cauldron sits below the rocky crust and is now squeezing the Pacific Ocean and expanding the Atlantic. The current configuration of Earth’s landmasses is not what it looked like 2 billion years ago, or even during the time of Pangaea roughly 250 million years ago. It’s also not how the planet’s visage will appear a few hundred million years from now (see this issue’s cover illustration for a spectacular view of the future supercontinent, already named Amasia).

Taking a long view does not come easily to most people. But that’s where science can help, enabling a new perspective on the past and the future — focusing our ability to see even gradual, geologically paced change and predict what will happen next. This is important for understanding Earth’s crustal dynamics and forecasting the planet’s future.

Out of concern for the planet’s future on a much shorter timescale, scientists are fervently searching for next-generation battery technology that will be central to efforts to reduce dependence on fossil fuels (see “Better batteries charge forward“). Better batteries means more than a longer time between recharging your smartphone or laptop. Ideally, new high-capacity batteries will be able to efficiently store the energy captured by solar and wind power or enable a car to drive long distances without gasoline.

At first glance, the search for better batteries seems glacially slow. The arrival of the lithium-ion battery was a big deal a quarter century ago, and it’s still the reigning champ in many smaller devices. Attempts at making improvements can easily go awry (consider Samsung’s Galaxy Note 7, whose explosive battery has resulted in airlines banning it from every flight). Improving batteries, contributing correspondent Susan Gaidos reports, involves both chemistry and design. New options are on the horizon: not-quite-ready-for-prime-time prototypes using lithium-sulfur or even lithium and air. In the next few years, many of these may move from the lab to commercial applications, with some perhaps destined for widespread use.

It may be hard for humans to see the long-term view, but, as the many involved in battery research illustrate, it is possible to imagine what might make things better some day. Along with the discoveries themselves, sharing the progress and stalls of science, through a journalistic lens, remains crucial. That’s what we do here at Science News — it’s our mission and our passion. Recently, we got a boost for our work from the Knight Foundation, which selected us for a strategic planning grant and invited us to participate in a donation matching program to support excellent journalism. Some good news for 2017.

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