Tesla recharging | Photo: Windell Oskay, CC BY 2.0
If there’s one thing I love, it’s good news. So today as I was catching up on my podcasts while doing chores (Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe goes great with kneading dough, folding laundry, and doing dishes) I got around to listening to Science Friday’s multi-segment feature on new battery technologies. And boy am I excited.
I haven’t been paying all that much attention to battery tech announcements, at least outside of watching as Tesla’s “Gigafactory” comes gradually online. Mostly I ignore the stories because it’s always the same thing: new technology announced, five years until it’s ready to be commercialized, five years to scale it up to being an actual consumer product. And even then, we’ve been using Lithium-Ion batteries since the early 1990s, so even that sad ten-year delay has started to seem pretty unreliable — after all, that’s five and five and fifteen more.
But listening to this podcast segment actually gave me hope. Not because any one technology seems exceptionally likely to hit the market next week (though there’s one I’ll get to that really excites me), but because there are so many technologies in development, and so many of them are getting so close that at least one of them just has to make it.
Take this one: the solid plastic electrolyte lithium battery, developed at Tufts University by professor Mike Zimmerman. A lithium-ion battery is an incredibly volatile device, as Samsung can attest. In order to allow charge to move back and forth between the positive and negative electrodes, a pressurized (highly flammable) liquid electrolyte is used. So we’ve got a whole lot of stored chemical energy in the same package as a flammable liquid. And right now all it takes is the tiniest bit of moisture getting in to short-circuit (or bridge) the space between the electrodes, and boom— there’s your pocket bomb. But Zimmerman’s battery doesn’t.
He’s figured out a way to make a solid plastic electrolyte that works as well as the current liquid one, which — and I hesitate to use the words, but in this case they might be warranted — is a “holy grail” of battery research right now. So-called solid-state lithium-ion batteries have been tried over and over, and have remained a pipe dream because the electrolyte materials weren’t good enough at conducting electricity (which is kinda sorta the point). Zimmerman’s works even better than the liquid electrode, and there’s no physical way for a short-circuit to happen. You can literally cut this battery in half and it won’t explode.
And to top it off, because of that safety, he doesn’t have to use an intercalated lithium compound, which is lower-energy but also less explodey, he can use straight-up lithium metal, which means his batteries could hold up to five times the energy-per-weight of current batteries. His working batteries already have twice the energy density of the ones being put to use in our devices (and cars) today.
The SciFri segment also went into magnetic-levitation vacuum-surrounded flywheels for stationary power storage, as well as a host of other technologies that are still at the five-to-ten year mark and promise five times the energy density. But even a doubling of energy density in the next five years would be nothing short of miraculous, bringing EV ranges to the 400-mile mark, and making personal storage for green power even more useful than it is under Elon Musk’s current tenure as the Battery King.
The one thing I’m convinced of is this: the plateau we’re on right now in battery tech? It’s about to give way to new heights. It’s only a question of which technology will hit the market first.
There’s a Nova documentary — the one the clip above is from — called Search for the Super Battery that I’ll be watching soon. If this post excited you as much as it’s excited me, then maybe you should watch it too.
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Richard Ford Burley is a human, writer, and doctoral candidate at Boston College, as well as Deputy Managing Editor at Ledger, the first academic journal devoted to Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies. In his spare time he writes about science, skepticism, feminism, and futurism here at This Week In Tomorrow.