It may be time to give up on a new battery

August 18th, 2015 § 0 comments

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.

  1. Lithium-Ion currently costs four times as much as gasoline []

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