Why we still don’t have bet­ter bat­ter­ies

Jamaica Gleaner - - SPORTS -

START-UPS WITH novel chemistries tend to fal­ter be­fore they reach full pro­duc­tion. MIT TECH­NOL­OGY RE­VIEW

De­spite very promis­ing re­sults from scores of bat­tery re­search projects, low-cost en­ergy stor­age re­mains elu­sive. A num­ber of start-ups are closer to pro­duc­ing de­vices that are eco­nom­i­cal, safe, com­pact, and able to store en­ergy at a cost of less than $100 a kilo­watt-hour. En­ergy stor­age at that price would have a gal­vanic ef­fect, over­com­ing the prob­lem of pow­er­ing a 24/7 grid with re­new­able en­ergy that’s avail­able only when the wind blows or the sun shines, and mak­ing elec­tric ve­hi­cles lighter and less ex­pen­sive. But those bat­ter­ies are not be­ing com­mer­cialised at any­where near the pace needed to has­ten the shift from fos­sil fu­els to re­new­ables. In fact, many re­searchers be­lieve en­ergy stor­age will re­quire an en­tirely new chem­istry and a new phys­i­cal form, re­plac­ing the lithium-ion bat­ter­ies that over the last decade have shoved aside com­pet­ing tech­nolo­gies in con­sumer elec­tron­ics, elec­tric ve­hi­cles, and grid-scale stor­age sys­tems. Qichao Hu, the founder of SolidEn­ergy Sys­tems, has de­vel­oped a lithi­um­metal bat­tery that of­fers dra­mat­i­cally im­proved en­ergy den­sity over to­day’s de­vices. The decade-long process of de­vel­op­ing the new sys­tem high­lighted one of the main hur­dles in bat­tery ad­vance­ment: “In terms of mov­ing from an idea to a prod­uct,” says Hu, “it’s hard for bat­ter­ies, be­cause when you im­prove one as­pect, you com­pro­mise other as­pects.” Added to this is the fact that en­ergy stor­age re­search has a mul­ti­plic­ity of prob­lem: there are so many tech­nolo­gies, from foam bat­ter­ies to flow bat­ter­ies to ex­otic chemistries, that no one clear win­ner is emerg­ing.

SOME STRUG­GLES

And even the best-funded start-ups are des­tined to strug­gle. “It will cost you $500 mil­lion to set up a small man­u­fac­tur­ing line and do all the minu­tiae of re­search you need to do to make the prod­uct,” says Gerd Ceder, a pro­fes­sor of ma­te­ri­als sci­ence at the Univer­sity of Cal­i­for­nia, Berke­ley, who heads a re­search group in­ves­ti­gat­ing novel bat­tery chemistries. Au­tomak­ers, he points out, may test new bat­tery sys­tems for years be­fore mak­ing a pur­chase de­ci­sion. And even if new bat­tery mak­ers man­age to bring novel tech­nolo­gies to mar­ket, they face a danger­ous pe­riod of ramp­ing up pro­duc­tion and find­ing buy­ers. Both Ley­den En­ergy and A123 Sys­tems de­vel­oped promis­ing new sys­tems, but both failed as their cash needs climbed and de­mand failed to meet ex­pec­ta­tions.

Mean­while, the big three bat­tery producers, Sam­sung, LG, and Pana­sonic, are less in­ter­ested in new chemistries and rad­i­cal de­par­tures in bat­tery tech­nol­ogy than they are in grad­ual im­prove­ments to their ex­ist­ing prod­ucts. And in­no­va­tive lithium-ion bat­ter­ies, first de­vel­oped in the late 1970s, keep get­ting bet­ter.

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