Batteries: Constrained by Chemistry

It looks like,today, batteries and their proponents have reached a certain threshold: there have not been disruptive-innovative commercial implementations to allow batteries to take a stand against the petroleum-fed-engines for a while. However, the progress is there, and couple-few recent discoveries are being put to work by those who set their mind to make it work. Big part of the problem is an efficiency of chemical processes in the batteries: if researchers would find a way to capitalize on at least 80% of the chemistry taking place inside the battery situation would dramatically change. Makers of batteries keep trying to achieve that goal, and 80% seems to be the desired mark! Then, there is a lifespan average battery has before it stops recharging all the way, we all are familiar with this flaw of lithium-ion batteries. There are developments on the way promising to increase lifespan of batteries up to 10 times.

Improvements in Electrolytes

Scientists have been experimenting with few ideas in order to reduce the cost and improve the performance of existing models. Boulder Ionics, a small startup in Colorado, is working on new type of electrolyte to start production of high performance batteries. The electrolyte is a mix of low-temperature melting salts (below 100 degree Celsius) that are capable of operating at high temperatures and voltages. It is not flammable and does not evaporate, which is usually an issue with conventional electrolytes. New electrolytes made with ionic liquids, are salts which could double the average capacity of ultracapacitors. Company believes that eventually it will be possible to "replace a starter battery in a car with a battery the size of a flashlight".

Twenty Years Lifespan for Tomorrow Batteries

New technology developed by the Japanese development firm Eamex will allow future lithium-ion batteries to be able to sustain over 10,000 recharges over the course of 20 years which is 10 times longer than today’s batteries: currently, lithium-ion batteries can handle about 1000 charges before they deteriorate. The company has reinvented the way to stabilize battery's electrodes by putting less pressure on the tin. This method slows down the deterioration process and improves the bonding between layers and components for longer periods of time.

Recharging in Three Seconds

Group of scientists led by Gerbrand Ceder and Byoungwoo Kang of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have developed a method to decrease the time it takes to recharge lithium-ion batteries down to seconds! What is amazing the technology involves using common and inexpensive materials and is easy to commercialize. If all goes well it could hit the market within few years. Researchers found the way to move lithium ions between cathodes and anodes quicker using nanoparticle clumps. The ability to recharge electric car battery as fast, or faster, than the gas tank refill takes could produce profound impact on marketability of electric vehicles and make the difference electric car industry needs so desperately today.

More Energy Storage Materials

There has been some progress in discovering new energy storage materials. Picking correct combination is not an easy task: computer simulation has to determine the compatibility of the material before its worth being tested in real life. Wildcat Discovery Technologies from San Diego implemented new approach to discover and test new energy storage materials: they manage to test thousands of substances at a time and then use mini-versions of manufacturing production process to test new material in real life. Recently, the company announced that lithium-cobalt phosphate used as a cathode,instead of lithium-ion phosphate, improves energy density of a battery by almost a half. They also discovered an additive for electrolyte that allows batteries to operate at much higher voltages. Mark Gresser, CEO of Wildcat, is confident that they've got materials able to triple energy density of modern batteries soon. The company has developed the unique method of testing new combinations and is on a way to success where so many others have stumbled, because they were able to find an efficient way to manufacture discovered samples. Cost-effective small scale production seems to make them special and promising; it is designed to determine the cost-effectiveness of large-scale production - the area where many others failed.

How About 500 Miles on a Single Charge?

Being able to recharge your car battery in a moment of time is a plus but does not help much if you decided to take a road trip across the country or travel between the cities. The single-charge-range has been a stumbling stone since the idea of EV had been announced about a century ago. Today IBM claims that they have solved that flaw with a new type of energy storage, a lithium-air cell that may lead to a 500 miles range car batteries. The research has been going on since 2009 and is called “Battery 500 Project”. Lithium-air cell technology involves use of nano-materials, in particular carbon, which are lighter than metal oxides. Carbon reacts with atmospheric oxygen to produce electricity. New concept of a Lithium-air cell based battery has theoretical energy density up to 1000 times higher than the lithium-ion type - incredible difference! Not everything has been perfect though, there are chemical instabilities limiting battery’s lifespan,the issue able to hinder use of this technology in cars. Scientists predict few years before perfect model is developed, otherwise technology looks very promising. Several companies led by IBM believe that they will have a prototype by 2013 and commercial product by 2020.

A Bundle of Innovations That Could Make the Difference

And cars are only one application out of so many, there are laptops and cellphones desperately in need for full day batteries. Electric motor propelled aircraft is very energy-efficient, and powerful energy storage solution in this field could trigger major changes also. At this point it is difficult to mark the winner but recent progress puts natural gas fuel cells and newest battery advances next to each other on the racing track: the winner will be powering our e-mobiles 10-20 years from today.

References: Boulder Ionics, Eamex, Wildcat Discovery Technologies, IBM, Almaden laboratories and Zurich research labs, Gerbrand Ceder and Byoungwoo Kang of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology