lithiumpolysulfide flow battery
Stanford Professor Yi Cui holds a lab demonstration of his new lithium-polysulfide flow battery.

Technology: Taking Batteries Beyond Lithium Ion

"There's an expectation that batteries should provide more and more power and higher and higher performance along with the technologies they power," says Ron Turi, owner of Element 3 Battery Ventures. "But the reality is, all battery chemistries are limited by real things like the periodic table and electrochemical potentials — the same limitations they've had for over a century."

Moore's Law states that the number of transistors on an integrated circuit — in other words, the speed and capability of semiconductors — will double every two years.

When Intel's Gordon Moore introduced the idea in 1965, it was an audacious claim. But as technology has developed, bringing increasing capabilities to shrinking phones, smarter cars and cleverer robots, Moore's Law has been proven continuously these past 43 years.

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However, as these technologies continue to develop at their breakneck pace, one key component is stubbornly dragging behind: batteries.

"Things are not going so well in a lot of areas for batteries," notes Ron Turi, owner of Element 3 Battery Ventures and former director of government affairs at International Battery.

"There's an expectation that batteries should provide more and more power and higher and higher performance along with the technologies they power," he says. "But the reality is, all battery chemistries are limited by real things like the periodic table and electrochemical potentials — the same limitations they've had for over a century."

And this is why, he says, technological development is being undercut by quick draining, inexplicably failing, discharging, overheating and occasionally spontaneously combusting batteries: The technology is already pushing the limits of basic chemistry.

From Brick to iPhone

The mobile phone celebrated its 40th birthday last month – a major anniversary that provided an opportunity to stand back and look at the progress made in that time. 

The first cellular call — made by Motorola's Martin Cooper to a rival engineer at Bell Labs on April 3, 1973 — was placed on a Motorola (IW 500/90) DynaTAC handset, a 2.2 pound brick that only offered about 20 minutes of battery life at full charge. 

Compared to that, today's batteries are really space-age miracles of innovation.

But compared to the technologies they power, they are far less impressive -- the computing power of the iPhone represents a far larger technological leap from that of the DynaTEC than is represented in their batteries.

See Also: Batteries of the Future [SLIDESHOW]

One reason for that, Turi suggests, is that the industry has cohered around lithium-ion as the go-to technology — and it is a technology that is rife with problems.

"Batteries for portable electronics might last just one or two years before they fail," Turi explains. "With any other application, if you saw that, you would say it's worthless. But to keep cost down, manufacturers had to use materials that were not necessarily the highest grade or most pure."

For electric vehicles, the opposite holds true. Because consumers demand high performing cars that last, manufacturers must use batteries with the highest energy density possible, which means extremely expensive, extremely heavy units.

And of course, the storage capacity of batteries makes off-grid energy storage impossible, leading to the "burn or lose" energy strategies in most wind turbine or solar power systems. 

Dream Batteries

The ideal power sources for today's technology are tiny, lightweight batteries capable of infinite storage and ultra high-volt discharge. But expecting that, Turi says, is going a bit too far. 

"It's like demanding a car that goes from zero to 60 in five seconds and that can also get 100 miles per gallon, haul enough for your five-member family in the trunk and last for 20 years," he says.

"People lay down expectations for batteries that they don't have for any single device in their personal experience. We've got to have a little bit of perspective on what is reasonable."

And what is reasonable, he says, is subject to limitations of the basic chemistry and physics that define our current understanding of battery technology. Until those change, product developers face some significant limitations. 

So instead of iPhone-equivalent leaps, he says, what we can expect in the short term is incremental improvements to existing technology.

"What's going to happen with the improvements is not so much creating spectacularly new things, but instead, reducing the inefficiencies toward a finite goal," he says. "And that energy density is finite energy density. You're not going to do any better."

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