Scientists Approach Holy Grail of Battery Technology: but is it more of a holey grail?
Scientists have come tantalizingly close to what some consider the holy grail of battery technology.
Lithium-ion (Li-ion) batteries are one of the workhorses for portable and rechargeable consumer electronics. They have a high energy density, a slow charge loss when not being used, and no memory effect. Your smartphone or tablet computer almost certainly has one these buggers. Still though, battery-life is one of the most common complaints about our beloved smartphones.
For decades scientists have been trying to create a lithium-ion battery that is more fully lithiumized (made-up word).
To appreciate this, let me list three basic battery components:
- Electrolyte: An electron source
- Anode: Dispenses said electrons
- Cathode:Receives the electrons
Li-ion batteries have lithium in the electrolyte but not the anode. A lithium anode would be a tremendous boon to battery technology because it would allow for a much lighter more energy dense battery which is music to the ears of everyone involved. The problem is two-fold. Lithium anodes form dendrites which are string-like growths that shorten battery life. Further, chemical reactions between the electrolyte and an all-lithium anode shorten battery life as well as creating a fire-hazard (these two are related since a burning battery is notoriously short-lived)
Dealing with these problems is exactly what researchers from Stanford University are reporting in the Journal Nature Nanotechnology. As usual, they don’t quite have it yet but they seem close enough that reporting about it makes sense. What they do is create a coating for the anode made of super-tiny carbon nanospheres. This ameliorates the aforementioned drawbacks allowing a full realization of the lithium anode’s potential (almost). They’re damn close however. The ratio of lithium the anode pushes out to the amount put in during a charge cycle is at 99%. It needs to be 99.9%. This is such a little difference that a little tweaking here and there should do the trick. The fundamental concept is far superior to previous attempts and seems extremely sound.
This is a fantastic advance with much promise but my problem is multi-fold and maybe a bit picky. First of all, they’re not quite at their goal yet. Sure they’re close but going that last yard (or nine-tents of a percent) is always a bitch right? Secondly, they describe this as the holy grail of battery technology. Yet they envision new batteries using this technology as having only 2-3 times the battery life and affordable electric cars with a 300 mile range. Sure this will be a drool-worthy advance for all consumer electronics but when you throw around the word “holy grail” it sets up certain expectations. I had visions of something like an order magnitude or ten times improvement in battery life or more. Now that would be a total game-changer which is what that term is meant to signify.
Maybe I am being a bit picky and I’m sure I’ll feel better about this tomorrow. After-all, I think I’d have a perpetual smile on my face if I could actually go a few days without even thinking about charging my damn phone.
I’m still waiting for a genuine holy grail though.