The lithium-ion battery was new battery technology in the 1970s. It took a while to get it from concept to product. Sony introduced the first commercial lithium-ion battery in 1991. It changed the world. Some important tech companies could not exist without it. Companies such as Apple or Tesla.
By modern standards, lithium-ion now an old battery technology. At first, new developments that doubled or even tripled the batteries’ storage capacity came rapidly. Now, the pace of improvement has slowed.
Grid storage and electric vehicles don’t yet work as well as we want them to. Lithium-ion technology probably can’t get them there. Our gadgets are becoming more advanced all the time. Think how often new cell phones or tablets come out. The batteries that power them haven’t changed much in decades. And so we have to charge our devices constantly.
Today’s new battery technology explores both ways to redesign lithium-ion batteries and find replacements for them.
New lithium-ion battery design
Today’s batteries depend on cobalt for the cathode. Cobalt has four drawbacks:
- There isn’t much of it in the world.
- It’s very expensive.
- It’s highly toxic.
- Too many of the mines that produce it exploit child labor.
We need new battery technology that doesn’t need cobalt. Researchers at the University of Texas at Austin have developed a cathode that is 89% nickel, the rest being manganese and aluminum. This alloy has greater energy density than cobalt alloys, but there’s a trade-off.
Substituting for cobalt in a cathode usually results in a shorter life cycle and longer charging time. That’s because ions in a cobalt-less cathode tend to bunch together. The Texas team has found a way to keep them evenly distributed.
Scientists at the University of California at Riverside are exploring how to replace graphite with silicon in lithium-ion batteries. They had two major difficulties making nano silicon: they couldn’t make it in large quantities, and it degraded too quickly. They can get silicon cheaply from sand, however.
If they can perfect their design, consumer electronics will maintain charge three times as long as current models. The range of electric cars will triple.
It appears to be close. Already one startup has begun to market this new battery technology.
Lithium metal batteries
Lithium batteries can burst into flames and cause catastrophic damage. Typically, they have graphite in the anode. Lithium can build up on the graphite and form tree-like structures called dendrites.
The dendrites can grow until they pierce through the membrane between the battery’s two compartments. When that happens, the battery short-circuits and may catch fire.
Much research into new battery technology, then, is concerned with eliminating dendrites.
Researchers at Texas A&M University have experimented with anodes of pure lithium without graphite. They boost energy content but can also suffer dendrite buildup and catastrophic fires. But a scaffold of carbon nanotubes can eliminate the problem.
These nanotubes are highly conductive but don’t bind to the lithium ions. With scaffolds of just the nanotubes, dendrites don’t form, but the batteries can’t produce large currents.
By juggling the combination of carbon nanotubes and binding molecules, the team produced anodes that handled larger currents than existing batteries but without forming dendrites.
These new, safer anodes bring us a step closer to commercially viable lithium metal batteries.
New battery technology without lithium: nanoscale batteries
Modern cell phones have numerous nanoscale switches that enable them to operate. All these switches rely on one power source, the battery. What if each one could have its own battery? That requires radically new battery technology.
Researchers at MIT are exploring nanoscale batteries—batteries both small enough and powerful enough to feed all the switches.
Miniaturization has reached its limit, given the size of the present generation of batteries. The MIT team is looking into nanoscale hydrogen batteries. That is, they work by splitting water molecules. Such batteries will outlast current batteries, be able to charge more efficiently, and waste less energy in operation.
Nanoscale materials work at the molecular level. So when a single water vapor molecule contacts the metal molecules in the battery, it splits into hydrogen and oxygen. The hydrogen becomes part of the battery until it’s needed. In other words, in the act of splitting the water, the battery basically charges itself.
When hydrogen is released, it combines with oxygen to form another water vapor molecule. And provides power to the switch.
Just think of the energy savings and power if they can make this idea work in our gadgets as well as it apparently works in the lab!
Gadgets without batteries at all
Is it new battery technology to ditch the battery entirely?
A partnership between Northwestern University and the Delft University of Technology has come up with a new Game Boy console. It has no battery at all. It runs on a combination of solar power and user actions. That is, whenever users push buttons, the device converts their energy into energy that helps power the game.
As it switches between the two power sources, it experiences short losses of power. Short as in so short that the player doesn’t need to stop playing to press “save.”
So far, the concept is nothing more than a toy, but think of the implications if ambient light, user actions, and other normal aspects of using a device can provide enough power in real time to make batteries unnecessary! It’s hard to recycle batteries. The problem goes away if devices can operate without them.
Don’t look for any of these ideas on the market any time soon. Look how long it took to make lithium ion batteries commercially viable. But maybe in another ten or fifteen years, today’s new battery technology will provide several replacements.
Battery-free Game Boy runs forever / Science Daily. September 3, 2020
Future batteries, coming soon: Charge in seconds, last months and power over the air / Chris Hall, Pocket Lint. July 21, 2020
MIT says nanoscale batteries are faster and greener / Kevin, Green Tech Gazette. May 16, 2019
New lithium battery charges faster, reduces risk of device explosions/ Science Daily. July 14, 2020
What’s next for batteries? / The Electrochemical Society
Lithium phone battery. Photo by Kristoferb via Wikimedia Commons
Lithium battery schematic. Public domain from Wikimedia Commons
Burning lithium camera battery. Daniel Steger for openphoto.net
Carbon nanotube. Some rights reserved by IBM Research