Three batteries that could power our future
There are no rechargeable batteries we know and love. There are only batteries that we know and don’t hate. That’s because the batteries we know and use daily have as many negatives as positives. Efficient energy storage—especially portable energy storage—is one of the biggest challenges of the modern high-tech world.
For the most part, the batteries in your cell phone or car are one of two technologies, lead acid or lithium ion, both of which have their pros and cons. Lead acid batteries are dependable, reasonably inexpensive, and can be recycled. But they have a low energy density, which means they can only deliver so much power to your device before they need a recharge. In contrast, lithium ion batteries have a high energy density. Yet they’re expensive and occasionally explode (hi, Galaxy Note).
Quick primer: Batteries work by a process of oxidation and reduction, where one material (such as lithium) loses electrons while another material (such as copper) gains them. Thanks to an electrolyte paste medium, electrons flow between the materials and release energy that powers your device.
This isn’t necessarily a one-way flow. Rechargeable batteries allow externally applied current to reverse this oxidation and reduction process, extending their life in a way that would make Dr. Frankenstein gnash his teeth in envy. But even the best cell phone batteries give you perhaps three years’ worth of performance before the amount of charge they hold dwindles. Scientists refer to this as “capacity fade.” You and I refer to this as, “$!@^*!&!! old battery!”
Lithium is third on the periodic table of elements (only helium and hydrogen are lighter). But lithium ion is now number one as far as business is concerned, especially since Elon Musk allocated $5 billion to building a lithium-ion battery factory—the Gigafactory.
However, well over a dozen potential battery technologies are vying for the title of the Next Big Thing. Some of these technologies, such as the urine battery and the portabella mushroom battery, aren’t reaching for the mass market. But the one (or more) have the potential to be used by those who need to spark up their cell phone, laptop computer, or electric car—in short, almost everyone.
Suffice to say, whoever captures even a sliver of this market will be printing money. Real money, like pounds before Brexit, instead of watered-down money, like pounds after Brexit.
Want to see what’s coming? These potential energy solutions aren’t ready for production systems yet, but they show lots of promise.
Zinc: What’s old is new again
Lead acid is the limited-capacity workhorse of the rechargeable battery world: slow yet stable. Lithium ion is the three-year-old hopped up on pixie sticks: fast yet unstable. But right now, nothing fills the wide-open space between them.
EnZinc hopes to bridge this gap by providing a recyclable battery that provides as much energy as lithium ion without going off with a bang. (The technical term is "thermal runaway.")
Zinc air batteries aren’t a new technology; even Thomas Edison gave them a whirl. Today, zinc has one critical advantage over lithium. Zinc is the fourth-most-mined material on the planet, which makes it relatively inexpensive, according to Michael Burz, CEO of EnZinc. Canada and Australia have plenty of zinc, while lithium is mostly found in South America and China.
Zinc is not without its flaws. Burz says zinc batteries form dendrites, filaments that penetrate the separator between anode and the cathode—the positive and negative sides of the battery. These dendrites form rapidly. "The battery could only be used 15, maybe 25, times or so before it died," he explains. "It wasn’t commercially usable.”
Still, zinc held researchers’ interest not only because of its ubiquity but also because of its safety: Zinc batteries don't experience thermal runaway. EnZinc eventually found a solution to this dendrite problem, one that earned it an ARPA-e award: "a porous zinc sponge that thwarts formation of structures that lead to battery failure."
This zinc sponge gets an electric charge, which reacts to form zinc oxide—on the surface only, not the interior. Burz says, “When we recharge, two things happen: The current can go through the still perfect part of zinc on the inside, and it reacts with the zinc oxide to turn it back into zinc. We can do this over and over again with no dendrites forming.”
Burz says this gives a zinc battery “the energy of lithium ion but the cost of a lead acid battery.”
The rechargeable zinc battery works—in a lab. It will take at least two more years before it’s ready for production and three years or more to hit a supply chain. But if all goes according to Burz’ plan, zinc could be powering your car in seven years.
And perhaps in twenty, it’ll be powering your flying car.
Carbon-ion batteries: Rapid charging
Imagine a battery that takes only a few minutes to charge. Now imagine a battery that can charge in mere seconds. That’s the future that Stephen Voller, CEO of Zap&Go, wants you to envision: a bold world free from borrowing your cubicle mate’s charger.
This lightning-fast charge is possible because the battery bypasses chemistry completely, in favor of static electricity. Carbon-ion batteries employ an ionic reaction, rather than a chemical one. They use a nonflammable electrolyte along with high-surface carbon materials. “The charge builds up on the layers of the cell without any chemistry. What that means is we can charge [the battery] more quickly because we’re not waiting for a chemical reaction to take place,” says Voller.
Carbon-ion, a.k.a. graphene, batteries aren’t only speedy. These batteries, which were developed at the University of Oxford, are also dependable, says Voller. Unlike lithium batteries, which give you two, perhaps three, years of rechargeability, carbon-ion batteries can charge and discharge 100,000 times—that is, about 30 years. But that’s not even the best part. At the end of the carbon-ion battery's life, you can recycle it.
What’s that, you say? A battery that can last 30 years? Doesn’t that defeat the money-making purpose of planned obsolescence?
Actually, it’s kind of the opposite. “One of the great concerns—in Europe particularly—is that, as a consumer, you have the right to return [a product] to the manufacturer when you’re finished with it. Obviously no producer of lithium cells wants millions of their products back that they then have to deal with,” says Voller.
Voller, whose technology earned a place on the Red Herring Global 100 list, is rolling out carbon batteries in three test markets at the end of 2017, with several unnamed others planned for 2018. If all goes according to Voller’s plan, in five to seven years, our batteries will be with us three times longer than Bruce Wayne had parents.
Better lithium-ion batteries
Lithium-ion batteries aren't going anywhere, says Michael Mo, CEO of KULR, a company that creates thermal management solutions. “Lithium-ion is proven to have the highest energy density with the most mature supply-chain cost advantage in the world," he says. "People like Elon Musk and industrial giants have placed enough bets this is going to continue for a while.”
However, the lithium-ion batteries we’re using now may not be the ones we use ten years hence. For a glimpse of lithium-ion's possible future, consider Prieto Battery, a Colorado startup that is currently reengineering the technology from scratch.
Instead of a rolled or stacked battery, Prieto's solution is 3D. This battery starts with a copper foam that’s 98% air, electroplated with a copper antimonide anode. This is coated with an ultra-thin polymer electrolyte and then surrounded by a cathode matrix of liquid slurry, according to Prieto’s website. The result is a battery that’s “a couple of inches across and the thickness of a sheet of paper,” writes MIT Technology Review.
Oh, and this polymer electrolyte allows ions, not electrons, to go back and forth, so the lithium-ion battery won’t short. The electrolyte polymer is solid state, which keeps explosions at bay. Plus, Prieto’s battery is nontoxic and contains only citric acid. You know, like in oranges.
Prieto has no time frame for the appearance of its batteries, but it recently signed a Memo of Understanding with Moses Lake Industries, a supplier of chemical solutions, with milestones set in place. Each one may lead us toward a brighter future.
Happy fun note: The CEO of Prieto is a woman. That’s a whole lot of girl power.
A short charge
These new battery technologies are still in the testing stages, and none of them is making Elon Musk lose sleep over the billions he's committed to the Gigafactory.
But I think it’s a good idea to venture away from lithium-ion batteries. Yes, they’re currently the standard in rechargeability, but lithium isn’t the most stable element on the periodic table. Plus, it’s not as common as other elements, so although manufacturers can get a fresh supply of lithium as needed, this is not the technology to bring us into the 22nd century.
As to which one will become the gold standard, I predict that there will be no one battery solution to every battery woe. What powers electric cars may not power your cell phone. And what powers your cell phone may not power your Fitbit. That means there’s room for any number of players.
What is a fairly closed field now looks as if it will open up a world of possibilities. And that’s electrifying.
Related reading: Harnessing Data Insights to Achieve Optimal Energy Consumption
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