Good­e­nough

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Many on-the-cusp tech­no­log­i­cal in­no­va­tions have been lim­ited by bat­tery tech­nol­ogy. Be­yond the ubiq­ui­tous kvetch­ing about iPhones and lap­tops run­ning out of juice at bad times, many ex­perts say bat­tery tech­nol­ogy is the key to so­lar, wind and other re­new­able sources becoming the dom­i­nant forms of en­ergy pro­duc­tion.

As things stand now, there is no large-scale way to store elec­tric­ity, giv­ing wind and so­lar lim­ited util­ity. They are now cheap but not avail­able all the time, and the elec­tric­ity they gen­er­ate must be used im­me­di­ately or lost for­ever. Other power sources — mainly nat­u­ral gas, coal and nu­clear, the dom­i­nant sources of elec­tric gen­er­a­tion — must be used when so­lar and wind aren’t avail­able.

Much of the re­search into the prob­lem is fo­cused on “dis­trib­uted gen­er­a­tion” — bat­ter­ies spread across a com­mu­nity. In that vi­sion, elec­tric cars with bet­ter bat­ter­ies could al­low peo­ple to store re­new­able en­ergy when it’s gen­er­ated, then use it for trans­porta­tion or to power their homes, sig­nif­i­cantly sup­ple­ment­ing fos­sil and nu­clear fu­els.

More gen­er­ally, the new bat­tery could also help on the busi­ness side, for in­stance by en­hanc­ing the range of trucks.

“It’s a plus across the board,” said Scott Hin­son, en­gi­neer­ing di­rec­tor for the Pe­can Street Project, an Austin-based con­sor­tium try­ing to in­tro­duce new wa­ter- and en­ergy-use tech­nolo­gies into ev­ery­day life.

Good­e­nough has been work­ing on a next-gen­er­a­tion bat­tery for a quar­ter-cen­tury. He came to promi­nence in the late 1980s, when he was the co-in­ven­tor of the lithium-ion bat­tery. That is a type of recharge­able bat­tery used for cell­phones, iPads and lap­tops.

Now 94, Good­e­nough has been work­ing on a new type of bat­tery be­cause price­wise, he has said, the elec­tric car still can­not com­pete with cheaper gas-pow­ered ve­hi­cles us­ing in­ter­nal com­bus­tion en­gines. With­out a new bat­tery, wars for in­creas­ingly lim­ited oil sup­plies could be­come more com­mon, he rea­sons; also, gaso­line emits gases that the vast ma­jor­ity of cli­mate sci­en­tists say con­trib­ute to global cli­mate change.

Two years ago Good­e­nough met Maria He­lena Braga, a Por­tuguese ma­te­rial sciences re­searcher who had been work­ing on a long-stand­ing prob­lem: the short-cir­cuit­ing that can cause ex­plo­sions and fires when a bat­tery is charged too quickly. Braga, now at UT, de­vel­oped a so­lu­tion with Good­e­nough and UT re­searcher An­drew Murchi­son.

One ad­van­tage of their new de­sign is that it is more en­vi­ron­men­tally friendly, sub­sti­tut­ing lithium with sodium that can be ex­tracted from sea­wa­ter, Braga said.

Good­e­nough can­not say ex­actly how much the re­search will en­hance bat­tery tech­nol­ogy. That will de­pend partly on how com­pa­nies in­cor­po­rate the re­search into new bat­tery mod­els (much as Sony did in 1991 when it com­mer­cial­ized the lithium-ion bat­tery re­search). But Good­e­nough said the bat­ter­ies should en­able a com­fort­able driv­ing range of at least 300 miles on a sin­gle charge — about three times far­ther than the 2017 Nissan Leaf.

Hin­son, who read the aca­demic jour­nal ar­ti­cle, said that, in talk­ing it over with his Pe­can Street Project col­leagues, “we had a hard time com­ing up with a, ‘wow, we re­ally have to be cau­tious about this’” an­gle.

The main lim­i­ta­tion will prob­a­bly be the charg­ing ca­pac­ity of a house. With­out a near-to­tal over­haul, a home can gen­er­ally charge a ve­hi­cle only so quickly with­out blow­ing the fuses. But the pri­vate sec­tor will prob­a­bly work around that lim­i­ta­tion more quickly, Hin­son said.

Even if a house’s wiring lim­its how quickly a car can charge, an owner can sim­ply let a car charge overnight for a longer pe­riod and then be able to drive it far­ther in the morn­ing, Hin­son said.

“Even if you can’t charge it faster, there are all th­ese other ben­e­fits,” he said.

As an­other ex­am­ple of how an im­proved bat­tery could be use­ful, Hin­son men­tioned the “res­i­den­tial mi­cro­grid” the Pe­can Street Project is now de­vel­op­ing. That de­vice, about the size of a re­frig­er­a­tor, has bat­ter­ies and cir­cuitry and is hooked into so­lar pan­els and a house’s elec­tri­cal sys­tem. The de­vice is also hooked into the city’s elec­tric grid for times when the sun doesn’t shine, but it is now ca­pable of run­ning an en­tire reg­u­lar-size house­hold on a sunny day, plus stor­ing per­haps three to 10 hours of elec­tric­ity for the night, Hin­son said.

A bet­ter bat­tery, he said, means the sys­tem can ei­ther be smaller, or it could power a home for longer — re­duc­ing the need to tap into the grid, po­ten­tially en­tirely.

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