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.