Batteries: Powering the Future


Author: Fil Zivko
27/2/2019

One of the most important and fundamental technologies which our society relies on is one that most people take for granted, batteries. Without batteries, some of the most common technology couldn’t exist, such as mobile phones, laptops, electric scooters, even petroleum cars depend on a 12v battery to start and function the electronics. Recent advancements in battery technology have enabled the popular tech product craze, drones. This is because batteries became so small and light that it is now possible to produce enough energy to keep more than the batteries own weight off the ground. Check out my video about electric planes if you’re interested in how batteries have even allowed planes to go electric, the link will be in the description. Batteries are thought to have been used for thousands of years, with the earliest discovered to be the Bagdad Batteries believed to be roughly 2000 years old. However, the invention of the battery wasn’t recognised until 1800, when Alessandro Volta debuted his zinc copper battery. The battery in recent times has become crucial to technological advancements, becoming an enabling technology for many industries. The main limiting factors of modern batteries are their cost, size and storage capacity. Over the last decade, so-called breakthroughs were announced many times, but all fell short of their promises. That’s not to say that there haven’t been improvements, for example, Tesla’s battery cost has been cut in half and capacity increased by 60 percent between 2008 and 2015. It is also reported that between 2012 and 2017, general battery cell prices fell by 70%. However, despite the progress, batteries are often the limiting factor of new technology and by that sentiment, they must improve. That is easily said, but improving technology is harder to do, particularly finding appropriate materials. An electric battery works by storing electrical energy in the form of chemical energy. The battery has two terminals, usually metals, which are separated by an electrolyte, usually in the form of a solution. When both the positive and negative terminals of the battery are connected, this allows the transfer of electrons in a process call oxidation. What’s happening is one of the terminals has more electrons than it needs, while the other terminal has less than it needs. When connected a chemical reaction takes place in the electrolyte solution and electrons flow through the wire which connects the two terminals. This is the fundamental basis for almost all batteries. One issue with renewable energy is storage. Electricity can be generated by renewable sources, but the production by these sources do not coincide with the electrical demand of the population. For example, in solar energy, the sun sets just as the electricity demand increases when people come home from work. Better batteries will make renewables be able to supply more of the electricity demand, as it will allow renewable power to be used even if the source isn’t live. MIT professor Don Sadoway is trying to do just that, patenting a battery to run entire neighbourhoods. The company developing the technology is called Amrbi and even has Bill Gates as an investor. What separates Ambri batteries from the rest is that it is the only battery where all three active components are in liquid form. This means that both the electrodes (terminals) are liquid as well as the molten solution between them. As a result, the battery has a low cost and a long life-span. Tesla is aiming to solve the same problem, a new “megapack” giant energy storage facility in California is expected to be debuted in the near future, however much is still unknown about this project. But the company did resolve South Australia’s blackout issues by installing their battery facilities so it could be a promising step. Better battery tech would also mean that electric vehicles could become more common in the market. A major metric in the EV industry is how long a single charge takes and how many kilometres or miles a single charge will last. In order to achieve better batteries in EVs, China has implemented a policy to provide more subsidies to manufacturers of longer-range EVs which require higher energy density batteries. China will subsequently pull back the subsidies on companies which are not producing as long-range batteries as their competitors. Currently, lithium-ion batteries are the king of battery tech. Here lithium atoms are stored inside of graphite layers inside the cell. The lithium atoms lose and regain electrons providing the electrical output. Sila Nanotechnologies is a company in California trying to get that break-through that’s needed. Instead of graphite, they intend to use microscopic silicon particles to store the lithium inside the battery. Their CEO, Gene Berdichevsky was quoted saying “An atom of silicon can store about 20 times more lithium than atoms of carbon. Essentially, it takes fewer atoms to store the lithium so you can have a smaller volume of material storing the same amount of energy”. Many companies and research laboratories are looking into this technology, but what sets Sila apart is that they claim to have solved the “expansion” problem. This arises as the silicone expands and damages the battery with each charge. Sila is set to launch its products in 2019. Research into aluminium ion batteries has been conducted for several years now. It promises to be a safer, faster and cheaper alternative to lithium ion. Lithium-ion batteries have a tendency to explode or catch on fire if damaged, as you may recall from the Samsung Galaxy Note 7 issues in 2016. Aluminium ion batteries don’t react the same way and can even be drilled through and keep running. The cost of the battery in comparison to lithium is much cheaper as aluminium is the third most abundant element making up 8.1% of the earth’s crust. Researchers at Stanford and the University of New South Wales have both said that this is promising technology but still early days in terms of development and commercial viability. There are countless other projects and types of batteries being developed such as vanadium redox, lithium air, fluoride ion, solid state, the list goes on. But for now, lithium ion reigns supreme. But the demand will not stop. As devices get smaller, thinner and require more energy and safety, the demand for batteries to improve will persist. Likewise, pressure from the renewables and electric transport sectors will provide more incentive and competition to develop better batteries. Perhaps the future of the electrical grid will be a combination of renewable energy sources stored in batteries and clean energy on demand from thorium reactors. Maybe improvements in battery tech will make EVs the cheaper and better than their counterparts. What kind of new technology will be enabled by better batteries? Who will be the first to reach the breakthrough? Well, one thing is certain, the race is on.

Tags : batteries, technology, tesla, grid, electricity,2019-02-27
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