It may be time to give up on a new battery

August 18th, 2015 § 0 comments § permalink

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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Stanford researchers take two different takes on a new battery, one with more lithium, one with less.

May 18th, 2015 § 2 comments § permalink

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)

Aluminum-ion battery

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)

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Graphene-Based Supercapacitors Could Lead To Battery-Free Electric Cars Within 5 Years

November 13th, 2014 § 1 comment § permalink

While the timetable seems a little unrealistic I wouldn’t be surprised if some sort of supercapacitor is going to kill the battery. Not only does it charge and release energy in almost no time at all, but this particular supercapacitor is far more environmentally friendly than Li-Ion batteries.

Because the supercapacitors are made out of graphene, a layer of carbon only one atom thick, the film is a more ecological choice. Additionally, because carbon can be sourced more easily than the lithium found in conventional batteries, it could end up being fairly economical as time goes on and production becomes more widespread.

“The price of Li-Ion batteries cannot decrease a lot because the price of Lithium remains high. This technique does not rely on metals and other toxic materials either, so it is environmentally friendly if it needs to be disposed of,” explained lead researcher Nunzio Motta.

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A once in a lifetime breakthrough

January 24th, 2013 § 7 comments § permalink

Flying Bomb!

Century old tech that needs to die.
Creative Commons License Audrey & Max

This Super Supercapacitor could be the biggest technological breakthrough since the computer was invented; a battery that doesn’t suck. Though there have been many advances over the past decade the fundamental design of the chemical battery hasn’t changed since it’s invention over a century ago.1 The problem with the battery as we know it really comes down to speed. They are slow to charge and slow to release energy. They are also incredibly toxic. You should feel guilty every time you throw one in the trash.

Enter the Supercapacitor. It will charge in minutes and can discharge just as quickly. Ok so you can charge up your phone and electric car in minutes instead of hours, that’s cool but it doesn’t seem that revolutionary. Here are just a few of the benefits that will come with a battery revolution.

The Super Supercapacitor | Brian Golden Davis from Focus Forward Films.

No more oil

The reason that we are so dependent upon oil is not because Exxon earns billions of dollars ruining the environment; it’s because gasoline is an amazing substance. It sounds boring but the energy to weight ratio of gasoline is unparalleled. If you think of your gas tank as an energy storage device it’s incredibly efficient. You can fill it up in minutes and the amount of power you can get out of it is limited by the size of your engine. Electric cars have to be plugged in overnight in order to top of their batteries and the only way to get a lot of power out of them is to have a dozen or more dishing out power at the same time. To add insult to injury about half the energy stored in our gas tank gets wasted generating heat.2

No More Power Lines

For things that don’t move we use power lines to transport the energy from distant power stations to your home or office. Beyond the fact that they ruin views and fall down during storms they are inherently inefficient. Transporting electricity long distances not only causes a loss of energy but the power plants have to generate power when people are going to use it rather than when it’s most efficient. This means that power plants are required to have a high-capacity to handle the evening hours but sit mostly idle during the night. More importantly this makes it very hard for alternative energy sources to compete. We harness wind when we can get it and solar during the middle of the day neither of which match up terribly well with our demands. The best place to harness this energy is also typically far away from urban areas. These factors add costs that reduce their viability when compared to coal and natural gas.

So a better battery not only makes electric cars a viable alternative but it will give a huge boost to alternative forms of generating energy. Put a wind farm in the middle of the ocean or a solar farm in the middle of a desert and simply transport Supercapictors back and forth.

The little things

The battery in our portable devices makes up a very significant portion the weight and bulk. Much the advances that Apple has made in shrinking their devices has come from brilliant work with the inherently crappy technology. Take a look at the guts of this iPhone 5 and you will see what I mean. Now imagine if they didn’t have to waste so much time coming up with clever ways to stick a huge battery in a tiny phone. One of the reasons it took them so long to add 4G to their phones was because the 4G chips needed to improve their power efficiency. People that picked up early 4G phones often turned 4G off because it would drain their battery in a couple of hours.

And that’s just the beginning because just like the computer it is almost impossible to imagine what can be done with a technology that is this transformative. It will do to electronics what the internet has done to computers. Would you like a GPS tracker in your keys? A laptop that needs to be charged once a month? Perhaps a phone as thick as a piece of glass? These are the type of things that are impossible with our current technology.

I had hoped to see something this revolutionary in my lifetime. I never dreamed it would happen this soon. I really, really hope this technology pans out.

  1. There are even those who think that ancient civilizations used clay pots to create a chemical battery though I’m dubious. []
  2. Obviously this ignores the carbon factor but I believe the best way to ditch oil is to come up with something better. []
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