It’s not an understatement to say that humanity’s future as a species depends in part on how we choose to generate, store and distribute energy. The march of technology is relentless, but a host of technologies — all the way from trifling consumer electronics to massive autonomous vehicles — are basically twiddling their thumbs while they wait for literal and figurative empowerment.
Our smartphones chain us to power outlets. Our vehicles either guzzle dead dinosaurs or make do with comically short drive times thanks to primitive batteries. And while companies have been teasing us with announcements of “breakthrough” battery technologies for years, a real sea change in the realm of energy still hasn’t shown its face.
Until now. If you don’t know the name John Goodenough, you probably should — he helped invent the venerable lithium-ion battery, which is the current standard for portable power. His new project is a brand-new type of battery — and it could change energy as we know it, and possibly even sooner than we’ve dared hope.
Lithium-ion batteries have served us well, but the demands of our other technologies have now far outstripped the current performance of li-ion batteries. When the Facebook application on your phone drains your battery even when you’re not actively using it, you know we’ve got work to do — on both the software and the hardware sides of the equation.
So what’s the problem with li-ion batteries? Actually, the limitations are manifold. They’re relatively expensive, they charge slowly and discharge quickly, they have relatively poor energy density and, if you needed more convincing, they’re prone to blowing up when consumer tech companies cut corners. Suffice it to say, we’re overdue for a battery revolution.
Goodenough has spent the last few years at Cockrell School alongside Maria Helena Braga, a senior research fellow. Together, they believe they’ve cracked the secret to making portable batteries with far greater longevity, a greater mindfulness toward user safety and faster recharge times. The implications could be staggering.
Goodenough and Braga claim their “solid-state” battery technology has three times the energy density of current-generation li-ion batteries.
Energy density lies at the heart of every battery’s usefulness — and its limitations. An electric vehicle with a battery on board has a driving range limited almost exclusively by the energy density of that battery. In smartphones, the amount of time it takes for your Instagram habit to send you running back to a power outlet is similarly hamstrung by your battery’s “appetite” for power.
Short version? Our batteries need to pack way more “oomph” into their svelte little packages before the rest of our technologies can really reach their full potentials. But what is a “solid-state” battery? And how is it different from our current batteries?
If you bought a new laptop in the last couple of years, there’s a very good chance it came equipped with a solid-state drive (SSD) for storage. Unlike hard drives, SSDs don’t have any moving parts. They can retrieve data far more quickly than the spinning “platters” on a regular hard drive, and can survive drops and shocks far more successfully.
Solid-state batteries borrow that concept and deliver several similar advantages. Ordinary li-ion batteries get their juice from electrolytes suspended in liquid form. The lithium ions, from which the battery takes its name, move through this liquid medium from the negative terminal, or anode, to the positive terminal, or cathode. Instead, solid-state batteries use electrolytes derived from, of all things, glass. Glass removes the risk of combustion from charging a battery too quickly, which should put an end to exploding smartphones. But that’s just the beginning of the applications.
New battery technology powered by solid glass electrolytes might change our world. As we’ve discussed, a great deal of human activity relies on the generation, storage and transportation of energy — and these new batteries will make all three steps of that process easier, cheaper and safer.
For starters, Goodenough’s research team claims vastly improved lifecycles for their batteries — as many as 1,200 cycles. Compare that to li-ion batteries, many of which have languished in the shallow end of 500 cycles or so. These batteries will also be far cheaper to produce, which is a great thing for applications that require manufacturing at scale, like consumer electronics and electric vehicles.
Since they replace lithium with sodium, and because sodium is easy to derive from seawater, solid-state batteries are also easier on the planet and don’t require such a massive manufacturing footprint. With humanity’s mistreatment of the planet approaching biblical proportions, this comes not a moment too soon. For applications where electric motors enter the mix, the advantage of battery power is obvious: unlike other motors, servo motors don’t require gallons of fuel or reservoirs of fluid.
Lastly, glass electrolytes enjoy higher conductivity than our current technologies, meaning they can survive and perform in a far greater range of temperatures and environments than li-ion batteries. The latter tends to start panicking about 35 seconds after you leave your phone unattended on a hot dashboard.
We’ve said it a couple times and we’ll say it again even more assertively: Unlocking the secrets to cheaper and more efficient batteries will unleash a wave of innovation the likes of which we haven’t seen in a generation. We’ve mentioned vehicles and portable electronics, but consider also the benefit of home energy storage via high-density, solid-state batteries. Pair it with a solar array on your roof, and suddenly tens of millions of Americans declaring independence from the electric grid looks a little less like Elon Musk’s fever dream and a lot more like imminent reality.
If you’re not excited by all of this yet, you definitely should be. Braga and Goodenough are working toward patenting their battery inventions and will begin more serious testing alongside auto manufacturers and others in the near future. Your next iOS or Android phone won’t sport a battery powered by glass, but take heart: We’re now measuring the wait in years, instead of decades.
Photos by Skitterphoto
Kayla Matthews writes and blogs about healthy living and has an especially strong passion for helping others increase their mental health and happiness by improving their daily productivity and positivity. To learn more about Kayla, you can follow her on Google+, Facebook and Twitter and check out her most recent posts on Productivity Theory. Read all of her MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.
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