What holds energy tech back? The infernal battery
WASHINGTON — As 21st century technology strains to become ever faster, cleaner and cheaper, an invention from more than 200 years ago keeps holding it back. It’s why electric cars aren’t clogging the roads and why Boeing’s new ultra-efficient 787 Dreamliners aren’t flying right now.
What’s next for batteries?
Change doesn’t come often in the battery field.
“It’s been more than 200 years and we have maybe five different successful rechargeable batteries,” said George Blomgren, a former researcher at Eveready and now a private consultant. “It’s frustrating.”
Alessandro Volta, for whom the volt is named, invented the first useful battery in 1800, long before other breakthrough inventions like the internal combustion engine, telephone, car, airplane, transistor, computer and Internet. But all of those developments have seemed to evolve faster. The lead-acid car battery has been around for 150 years.
Battery experts are split over what’s next. Some think the lithium-ion battery can be tinkered with to get major efficiency and storage improvements. Others say it’s run its course. All sorts of new batteries are being worked on — lithium-air, lithium-sulfur, magnesium, sodium-ion.
“Right now it’s a horse race,” Blomgren said. “There’s deficiencies in every technology that’s out there.”
And chances are you have this little invention next to you and probably have cursed it recently — the infernal battery.
Boeing is the first company to make extensive use in an airliner of technology’s most advanced battery, lithium-ion.
But a Jan. 7 battery fire aboard a Dreamliner in Boston, followed by a similar meltdown in Japan, led authorities around the world to ground the fleet this month, highlighting a longstanding safety problem that engineers have struggled with.
In 2006 and 2007, more than 46 million cellphone batteries and 10 million laptop batteries, all lithium-ion, were recalled because of the risk of overheating, short-circuiting and exploding.
Additional safety features have been installed since then on lithium-ion batteries used in consumer electronics.
As for the electric car industry, lithium-ion batteries have proved to have two major drawbacks — they are costly, and they do not allow automobiles to go far enough between rechargings. A123, a maker of lithium-ion batteries for electric cars, went bankrupt last year because of poor demand and high costs after receiving a $249 million federal grant.
Lithium-ion batteries, which store more energy at a higher voltage and a lighter weight than earlier types, represent the most recent big jump in battery technology. And that took place nearly a quarter of a century ago.
“We need to leapfrog the engineering of making of batteries,” said Lawrence Berkeley National Lab battery scientist Vince Battaglia. “We’ve got to find the next big thing.”
But none of the 10 experts who talked to for this story said they know what that big thing will be yet, or when it will come.
“If you crack it ... it’ll change the world,” said Carnegie Mellon University materials science professor Jay Whitacre.
Batteries are so crucial to a greener energy future that the Obama administration has spent more than $2 billion to jump-start the advanced battery industry, including setting up what some experts said is a mini-Manhattan Project for batteries.
To make the next breakthrough, researchers will have to master complex chemistry, expensive manufacturing, detailed engineering, a variety of different materials, lengthy testing, stringent safety standards and giant cost problems.
It involves dealing with liquids and solids, metals and organic chemicals, and things that are in between, said Glenn Amatucci, director of the Energy Storage Research Group at Rutgers University.
“We’re dealing with a system that you can imagine is almost alive. It’s almost breathing,” Amatucci said. “Trying to understand what’s happening within these batteries is incredibly complex.”
One reason the battery is the slowpoke of the high-tech highway is that it has conflicting functions. Its primary job is to store energy. But it’s also supposed to discharge power, lots of it, quickly.
Those two jobs are at odds with each other.
“If you want high storage, you can’t get high power,” said M. Stanley Whittingham, director of the Northeast Center for Chemical Energy Storage. “People are expecting more than what’s possible.”