These are dark days for the battery industry. While everyone has been waiting for a scientific breakthrough that would dramatically reduce the cost of storing electricity1 hope is beginning to fade. As Steve LeVine writes over at Quartz.
Entrepreneurs such as Tesla’s Elon Musk continue to tinker with off-the-shelf batteries for luxury electric cars and home power-storage systems, but industry hands seem generally to doubt that their cost will drop enough to attract a mass market any time soon. Increasingly, they are concluding that the primacy of fossil fuels will continue for decades to come, and probably into the next century.
He goes on to profile Yet-Ming Chiang, a materials-science professor at MIT, who is attempting tackling the problem from a manufacturing standpoint. Currently it takes around 24 hours to make a Lithium-Ion battery and factories range from the hundreds of millions all the way up to Tesla’s 5 Billion dollar Gigafactory. Not only does this make it incredibly hard for startups to innovate in the manufacturing space but it means that established players have little interest in rethinking the processes as it may very well wipe out the value of their factories.
It all started with cassette tapes, or their demise rather. Sony invented the lithium-ion battery in the early 90’s so they could put it in a camcorder but they died to figure out a way to quickly ramp up production.
Providence stepped in: As it happened, increasingly popular compact discs were beginning to erode the market for cassette tapes, of which Sony was also a major manufacturer. The tapes were made on long manufacturing lines that coated a film with a magnetic slurry, dried it, cut it into long strips, and rolled it up. Looking around the company, Sony’s lithium-ion managers now noticed much of this equipment, and its technicians, standing idle.
It turned out that the very same equipment could also be used for making lithium-ion batteries. These too could be made by coating a slurry on to a film, then drying and cutting it. In this case the result isn’t magnetic tape, but battery electrodes.
By and large they continue to be made the same way today.
Apart from this slow process, conventional batteries have a second problem: 35% of their interior space is filled with material that doesn’t contribute to generating electricity. That includes the binder that holds the slurry to the film; a separator that keeps the anode and cathode from shorting each other out; and a current collector that brings the charge to an electronic device.
Chiang wanted to reduce the manufacturing process to a single hour. And he wanted to shrink the space filler to almost nothing.
So far Chiang has had quite a bit of success in the lab. They have even built a refrigerator sized manufacturing platform that can spit out a battery cell in 2½ minutes. Compare that to a 400,000-square-foot facility that takes 22 hours in the drying stage alone. Currently 24m, Chiang’s company, is looking to raise another 30-50 million dollars to test the commercial viability of their new manufacturing processes.
- Lithium-Ion currently costs four times as much as gasoline [↩]
Removing the reflection is pretty cool, but when they remove the foreground and show just the background my brain melted a little bit. I felt like I was watching a poorly written movie where some detective says “hey, can you enhance that reflection” and a nerd says “sure” klickity clack boom “ENHANCED!”. At which point I would normally groan and call bullshit.Leave a comment
The other part of our exponential hangover is how we build our businesses. The cult of growth denies the idea that you can build anything useful or helpful unless you’re prepared to bring it to so-called “Internet scale”. There’s no point in opening a lemonade stand unless you’re prepared to take on PepsiCo.
I always thought that things should go the other way. Once you remove the barriers of distance, there’s room for all sorts of crazy niche products to find a little market online. People can eke out a living that would not be possible in the physical world. Venture capital has its place, as a useful way to fund long-shot projects, but not everything fits in that mold.
I really want to build something that doesn’t require broad addoption to be successful.Leave a comment
It’s not about manipulating data faster, it’s about manipulating matter for the first time. I’m super curious about what kind of applications this could be used for.
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Zack Kanter at Quarts on the impending
Autonomous cars revolution:
Autonomous cars will be commonplace by 2025 and have a near monopoly by 2030, and the sweeping change they bring will eclipse every other innovation our society has experienced. They will cause unprecedented job loss and a fundamental restructuring of our economy, solve large portions of our environmental problems, prevent tens of thousands of deaths per year, save millions of hours with increased productivity, and create entire new industries that we cannot even imagine from our current vantage point.
I’m not sure we will make it by 2025, there are some large hurdles to overcome, but I pretty much agree with everything else in this article. Say goodbye to car ownership, speeding tickets and parking lots.Leave a comment
★ Stanford researchers take two different takes on a new battery, one with more lithium, one with less.
There are some interesting, if possibly competing, teams working on new battery designs at Standford.
One team, lead by Hongjie Dai is working on an aluminum-ion battery with some interesting benefits. Typical alkaline batteries are terrible for the environment and lithium-ion batteries not only have a bad habit of catching on fire but they are also slow to recharge and only last about 1,000 cycles. The aluminum variety should be able to charge in minutes while also lasting more than 7,500 cycles. The main hurdle, and it’s a big one, is that it currently doesn’t put out enough juice to power something fancy like an iPhone. (source: iflscience.com)
Meanwhile, on the other side of Campus Yi Cui is going after the ion side of the lithium-ion battery.
Today, we say we have lithium batteries, but that is only partly true. What we have are lithium ion batteries. The lithium is in the electrolyte, but not in the anode. An anode of pure lithium would be a huge boost to battery efficiency.
There are a number of problems with using lithium as an anode, not the least of which is that when lithium comes into contact with air it bursts into flames. To prevent this researchers are covering the lithium in a protective layer of interconnected carbon domes a bare 20 nanometers thick. They are still working on the coulombic efficiency of the battery but so far the results are quite promising.
(source: news.standord.edu)Leave a comment
The Vortex Bladeless is an interesting idea for a new wind turbine.
Vorticity has long been considered the enemy of architects and engineers, who actively try to design their way around these whirlpools of wind. And for good reason: With enough wind, vorticity can lead to an oscillating motion in structures, which, in some cases, like the Tacoma Narrows Bridge, can cause their eventual collapse.
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If you have ever rolled your eyes when a TV show or movie enhances a blurry image to bring out more details then you will certainly want to take a look at image scaling using deep convolutional neural networks that the engineers at Flipboard are working on.
The math is pretty dense but the article also has a great primer on the use of neural networks to create algorithms that learn how to reduce their own error rate.Leave a comment