From solid state to plug & play: 6 breakthroughs in battery technology

Better battery technology can do much more than improve smartphone performance: electric cars, green energy and connected devices will all benefit from leaps in battery science.

Recent years have seen complications with traditional lithium-ion batteries that have had negative impacts on major brands. The lithium-ion batteries used in some smartphones, electric bikes and even the self-balancing scooters known as “hoverboards”, have had an unfortunate habit of exploding. This is a problem since lithium is the lightest metal and therefore highly attractive for use in batteries; it can store the highest amount of charge by weight.

Lithium first gained real traction in technology in the early 1990s as ever more powerful microchips created a demand for more powerful portable devices. Since then, lithium-ion technology has improved immensely, with energy density increasing by a factor of six and costs falling by a factor of 10.

Li-ion king

Lithium-ion batteries today do much more than power laptops and smartphones. They are used in high performance cars like the Tesla Model S and the Chevy Bolt. They are also vital in the power sector, where they are used to overcome the intermittency of renewable energy sources like solar and wind, and are also used to replace inefficient ‘peaker’ plants, power plants that only run in times of high demand. Today some electric cars can travel 200 miles on a single charge and lithium-ion grid storage is a reality in some applications. Renewable energy demand tends to have spikes and troughs and the energy generated needs to be stored effectively – again prompting the need for better batteries.

Lithium-ion has its limits though. Intercalation remains an issue, whereby a battery’s components degrade as it charges and discharges. Basic physics plays a role too, as there is only so much Lithium you can physically fit between the battery’s anode and cathode, meaning there is a limit to how much energy density can be achieved. It is likely that lithium-ion batteries could yet see something between a 50 percent and 100 percent increase in performance from where they are now but no more than that. For energy transformation to keep pace with digital transformation, new technological strategies and approaches will be needed.

Here are six prospective breakthroughs for better batteries:

Solid state batteries for cars

Toyota has unveiled new battery technology it claims can help electric cars make much longer trips. The automotive giant has developed solid electrolyte technology that could make much lighter batteries and therefore cars with better range. The solid electrolyte composition also does not decay like lithium-ion batteries. Toyota hopes to have the new battery technology in its cars by 2020.

Li-ion inventor makes new breakthrough

A few months ago, John Goodenough, the 94-year old co-inventor of the lithium-ion battery cell, announced a breakthrough in solid state batteries. The impact of these on the car industry could be huge. As Goodenough himself said, “Cost, safety, energy density, rates of charge and discharge and cycle life are critical for battery-driven cars to be more widely adopted. We believe our discovery solves many of the problems that are inherent in today’s batteries.” The new solid-state cells use glass electrolytes that enable use of an alkali-metal anode, with the glass electrolytes enabling the substitution of low-cost sodium for lithium. Sodium can be extracted from seawater to keep costs down.

Cylindrical Li-Ion

At the recent Frankfurt Motor Show Samsung SDI revealed a new battery technology that could challenge Tesla in the race for long range battery supremacy. Samsung’s new cylindrical lithium-ion cells can reportedly extend electric vehicle range to 600 to 700 kilometers, further than the current range of Tesla’s flagship Model S. Samsung has also developed a concept of multifunctional battery pack for electronics cars, whereby individual batters in the rack are plug & play – therefore you can always have one charged.

Advanced fuel cells

Researchers at Pohang University in South Korea have developed a fuel cell that could potentially mean we only need charge our cellphones once a week. The cell combines porous stainless steel with thin-film electrolyte and electrodes of minimal heat capacity to create a battery that is much more durable and longer-lasting and could be used in electric cars in future.

Sodium-ion batteries

These batteries use salt and are already in use in laptops thanks to a prototype introduced by the French research network RS2E. The battery is built on a standard that is designed for laptops and could be extended to electric cars like the Tesla Model S. The 6.5cm battery could achieve 90 watt-hours per kilogram, putting it in the same league as lithium-ion.

Miniature power stations

Or a battery that ‘produces’ energy rather than just storing it. During the 2016 Sikorsky Challenge, a prestigious international competition for research projects, Ukrainian scientist Vladislav Kiselev introduced a new type of battery that he claims can power gadgets such as smartphones - and potentially even cars - for up to 12 years without having to be recharged.  Kiselev says his battery is different because it uses tritium, and its ability to emit electrons, which help make the battery 1,000 times more powerful.

The race for a better battery is on

The UK government recently announced a £246 million investment in new battery technology, including a £45 million competition to make batteries more accessible and affordable. In the US, Qualcomm has invested in a start-up that claims to have developed a lithium-ion battery that is safe and does not carry the risk of explosion. British vacuum cleaner entrepreneur James Dyson has pledged $1.4 billion over five years to drive battery technology forward. German researchers are currently working on a new space-efficient battery that has an energy-storing casing and could help electric cars go for 620 miles on a single charge.

The battery has become the 21st century’s mousetrap: build a better one and the world will indeed beat a path to your door.

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Steve Harris

I’ve been writing about technology for around 15 years and today focus mainly on all things telecoms - next generation networks, mobile, cloud computing and plenty more. For Futurity Media I am based in the Asia-Pacific region and keep a close eye on all things tech happening in that exciting part of the world.