Consumer electronics (phones, laptops) used to be the major application for rechargeable batteries. But the e-bike market grew very fast as well. As they use dozens of lithium cells per e-bike, they became a serious battery application. For these major applications, much research is being put into it to increase the performance. And with good results.
However, major drivers for the future are two newer applications: electric vehicles and energy storage. The perspective is that in the near future electric vehicles will be the norm and energy storage will be a necessity – ultimately for most houses – to keep the grid stable and affordable. This creates a demand that is many orders of magnitude higher, justifying large investments in battery R&D. This is happening now.
How new battery technologies (don’t) work
It always starts in the lab where a small or large group of scientists work on improvements of existing processes, or on fundamentally new approaches. An example of improvements are the new electrolytes and other parts of lithium batteries that caused the capacity and specific yield (Watt hours per kg/liter) to grow gradually. With a proven track record, it’s fair to state that this category has the largest chance of success. It should also be noted that these improvements are often funded by existing vendors – who have the R&D budgets. This makes all the difference with independent researchers, as it is much more difficult to get financing for a R&D project with an unknown outcome, as ambitious as the efforts may be.
The next issue is the conversion step from lab – via trial runs – to mass production. Many projects that showed highly promising results (e.g. “double capacity in the same form factor”) did not make it to reliably transform the lab results in trial runs – within a given budget. This will effectively block further investment by venture capitalists and other financiers. It could well be that, when the scientists would have got more time and money, they could have made it to the next step.
But even when trial runs are successful, the biggest step is yet to come. In particular as mass production requires not only a stable enough and reproducible process, but also and often related: at acceptable costs. This is where many potentially successful (in the trial runs) fail, as they do not manage – fast enough – to produce a marketable product.
For big names with deep pockets, especially when they are stakeholder, the technology enhancing process is much easier. Financing is internally available and time is therefore less an issue.
Below is an excerpt from the IBM Research blog, with an added summary, which shows one of the most promising fundamentally new battery technologies.
IBM Research, Mercedes and others
“Many battery materials, including heavy metals such as nickel and cobalt, pose tremendous environmental and humanitarian risks. Cobalt in particular, which is largely available in central Africa, has come under fire for careless and exploitative extraction practices.
Using three new and different proprietary materials, which have never before been recorded as being combined in a battery, the IBM Research team has discovered a chemistry for a new battery which does not use heavy metals or other substances with sourcing concerns. The materials for this battery are able to be extracted from seawater, laying the groundwork for less invasive sourcing techniques than current material mining methods.
“Just as promising as this new battery’s composition is its performance potential. In initial tests, it proved it can be optimised to surpass the capabilities of lithium-ion batteries in a number of individual categories including lower costs, faster charging time, higher power and energy density, strong energy efficiency and low flammability,” is said by IBM Research.
Discovered in IBM Research’s Battery Lab, this design uses a cobalt and nickel-free cathode material, as well as a safe liquid electrolyte with a high flash point. This unique combination of the cathode and electrolyte demonstrated an ability to suppress lithium metal dendrites during charging, thereby reducing flammability, which is widely considered a significant drawback for the use of lithium metal as an anode material.
This battery has shown the capacity to outperform existing lithium-ion batteries not only in the previously listed applications, but can also be optimised for a range of specific benefits, including:
From lab to industry
According to IBM “To move this new battery from an early stage of exploratory research into commercial development, IBM Research has joined with Mercedes-Benz Research and Development North America, Central Glass, one of the top battery electrolyte suppliers in the world, and Sidus, a battery manufacturer, to create a new next-generation battery development ecosystem.”
Reference: BIKE europe
A knowledge platform established for industry