Tech Innovation

Power On: The Latest Battery Breakthroughs

While batteries become smaller to power handheld and wearable devices, they’re also getting larger to decrease the dependence on the electrical grid.

Innovation in handheld devices and increasing demands for alternative energy is pushing battery makers and ion researchers to develop new battery breakthroughs to power the planet.

Lithium-ion batteries, which have been the industry standard in rechargeable devices, are getting an upgrade — and new technologies on the horizon deliver new ways to power everyday gadgets.

“Companies are improving the way that batteries are built, reducing the amount of space needed by the package and other inactive materials inside the battery,” explained Andy Keates, a principal engineer at Intel. “This makes it easier to create batteries which are very small, very thin, or require custom shapes.”

While innovation in smartphones, tablets and wearable devices continues to explode, battery innovation has proven more elusive, with decades-old lithium-ion technology powering most of our new devices.

But while lithium-ion batteries remain the most common way we power up, their high reactivity (flammability) means they need to be housed in rugged structures that add to the size and weight of the battery.

While some companies are working to create batteries from new materials, others are developing innovations to current lithium-ion technology.

“Lithium-ion battery manufacturers continue to make incremental increases in capacity,” said Steven Holmes, Vice President and General Manager of Intel’s New Devices Group.

“Companies are becoming smarter in finding new ways to extract longer life and faster charge cycles,” he said, adding that new battery chemistries under development promise even higher energy density, but these are still in their infancy.

Last month, Elon Musk unveiled Tesla’s new direction and latest innovation. The Powerwall is a sleek lithium-ion “home battery” that uses solar panels to absorb energy in the day, storing it for use in the evening or as emergency backup power.

Tesla took on 38,000 preorders, selling out through mid-2016, prompting Forbes to ask whether Musk had just killed nuclear power.

The company’s Nevada gigafactory, which aims to be the largest lithium-ion manufacturer in the world when it opens in 2017, may be dedicated entirely to Powerwall production. In a similar development, Germany’s Sonnenbatterie home-powering battery allows solar power users to bank electricity to use at night. Users have the potential to lower their electrical bills by up to 90 percent.

The battery uses lithium-iron phosphate cells (instead of lithium-ion or lithium polymer cells), which the company maintains are safer and less flammable.

Meanwhile Michigan-based start-up Sakti3 plans to double the energy density of current lithium-ion batteries with what’s called “solid state” battery technology, which takes out liquid electrolytes – the flammable part of current battery technology.

Appliance maker Dyson invested in the company, hoping to use the new technology in its products. Sakti3 also aims to power electric cars to drive further on a single charge and at a fraction of the cost.

Another solid-state battery company, Prieto Battery has redesigned lithium-ion batteries with what they call a “three-dimensional solid-state battery architecture,” to create a nontoxic, faster-charging and high-power-density battery that also eliminates the flammable liquid electrolyte.

What it Means for Wearables

While much has been made of the Apple Watch, it only runs for up to 18 hours on a single charge. In contrast, Pebble’s crowdfunded new smartwatch has a lithium-ion polymer battery that lasts up to 7 days on a single charge.

Another advance that may be on the way for wearables is a “stretchable” lithium-ion battery.

Researchers at Arizona State University recently published a paper about a flexible battery design inspired by a variation of origami.

Researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign recently used 3D holographic lithography and 2D photographic lithography to create lithium-ion “microbatteries.”


Credit: Hailong Ning and Paul Braun, University of Illinois

While lithium-ion batteries may be getting a makeover, they’re still here to stay.

“Lithium will remain the key element in batteries because it is number three on the table of the elements, making it light, and it operates at a high voltage,” said Keates.

“The compounds that store the lithium ions will continue their gradual development, which provides us with about seven percent additional storage capacity each year,” he said.

Though the search has been elusive, many companies are still searching for options beyond lithium. Much has been reported about an aluminum graphite battery out of Stanford University.

This new battery is half as powerful as a lithium-ion battery, but it only takes a minute to charge fully and isn’t flammable the way lithium is.

Made out of low-cost aluminum and graphite, the materials mean the battery is flexible, raising the possibility, the researchers point out, of a “bendable cellphone with a bendable screen and a bendable battery.”

Keates points out, however, that an aluminum battery may be up to six times heavier than lithium-ion batteries.

California startup Imprint Energy is also rethinking the raw materials of traditional tech with its zinc-based rechargeable battery that uses a solid polymer electrolyte.

The battery’s thin shape and flexibility — the company prints them on an industrial screen printer — may hold potential for small or wearable gadgets.

Donald Sadoway, professor of Materials Science and Engineering at MIT and one of TIME’s most influential people, told viewers of the Colbert Report that a “peaceful, prosperous world rests on the invention of modern cost-affordable batteries” that can back up and store the electrical grid.

“Lithium-ion has been around for over 20 years,” he said. “The price has come down a lot, but let’s not forget that it was invented for mobile devices like Handycams and portable music players.”

Sadoway said lithium-ion batteries remain expensive for large-format uses, which include powering electric vehicles and storing energy.

Sadoway and his team are developing a “liquid metal battery,” consisting of a salt electrolyte separated by two metal layers (electrodes). Their goal is to create an electrical grid-scale level of energy storage.

“If a homeowner has solar or wind generators, this battery the size of a refrigerator in a garage or basement would be able to essentially get you off the grid,” he said. “You’d bank enough when the sun doesn’t shine or the down periods when the wind doesn’t blow.”

Looking ahead, Sadoway wants to see these batteries scalable to a community level. Sadoway gave the example of servers in Manhattan that will soon exceed the electricity capabilities of the transmission lines available.

“[New transmission lines] are going to be a billion dollar investment, whereas you put these batteries in the basement of a skyscraper, charge them when the demand is low overnight, and then draw upon it in the middle of the day when the demand exceeds supply,” he said. “That can have a pronounced effect.”


Michael C. Powell writes about technology, music, food and the issues that surround them. You can find his work in media such as The Guardian, IMPOSE, Consequence of Sound, and many others. Even more often, you can find him being absurd on Twitter @kbloggins.



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