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Anes Alic

Anes Alic

Anes Alic is a veteran investigative journalist and writer whose work in everything from anti-terrorism and high-level politics, to industry, investing and IT has won…

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This Tech Giant Just Entered The Battery Business

Investors have been battling with the battery paradox for years. The answer might see us ditch heavy metals for something as random as … seawater. 

With the global electrification drive in full swing, the demand for batteries is set to skyrocket over the next couple of decades, even if lithium prices don’t reflect that future reality just now. 

Batteries also form the core of our clean, carbon-free grids in the ongoing energy revolution as we look to mitigate the severe repercussions of climate change. 

But even as all those battery-metal investors lose their shirts after having jumped on this bandwagon too soon, the fact is that our capacity to meet growing demand for critical battery elements such as lithium, cobalt, and nickel is increasingly becoming limited. Supply challenges and many critical reserves are nearing depletion.

IBM may have just given us the answer. 

Researchers at the multinational information technology company say they’ve come up with a new battery that utilizes unique ingredients that can be extracted from abundant seawater instead of relying on scarce minerals.

The Next Level, Out to Sea

The hunt for advanced materials that will catapult battery technology to the next level has been going on for decades, and has occasionally inspired techno-wizardry with an impossibly futuristic slant from bendable batteries that mimic the human spine to breathable nanochain structures. 

The new IBM battery takes this trend a step further by recreating the famous Li-ion battery without using the usual ingredients. Related: Another Oil Major Bails On Marcellus Shale

Scientists at IBM Research’s Battery Lab have designed a new battery that replaces cobalt and nickel in the cathode. It also incorporates a new liquid electrolyte with a high flash point. IBM says this unique configuration can limit the creation of lithium dendrites (pesky structures that form inside Li-ion batteries and can cause short circuits). 

There are manifold benefits to this new battery.

First off, the future supply of heavy metals such as nickel and cobalt remains far from certain. Making matters worse, they are also mined in conditions that generally present hazards to the environment, not to mention the child deaths that have resulted from cobalt mining in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).  

Nickel prices have soared to five-year highs due to fears about supply tightness after Indonesia confirmed a full export ban by 2020. 

Meanwhile, the cobalt industry has come under fire after several NGOs lobbied the London Metals Exchange to ban trade in tainted cobalt. Majority of the silver-gray metal comes from the DRC where several organizations have cited human rights abuses, especially at artisanal mines.

Second, the high flash point of the electrolyte will drastically reduce the risk of fires or explosions that are quite common, even in high-end Li-ion batteries such as those used in Tesla’s EVs.

And last, but by no means least, IBM says the new battery can charge to roughly 80 percent of full capacity in just five minutes; is more energy-efficient; and is also cheaper to manufacture.

Long-Cycle Li-Carbon Dioxide Battery

IBM’s battery is not the only significant new battery technology to emerge from realms of techno wizardry this year, either. 

In September, researchers at the University of Illinois at Chicago unveiled the world’s first fully rechargeable lithium-carbon dioxide batteries that are seven times more efficient than conventional Li-ion types--fully-rechargeable being the operative phrase here.

The big news: the novel batteries can be recharged up to 500 times.

Another advantage: they are being billed as carbon-neutral batteries that can put a dent in the carbon levels in our atmosphere. Related: Why Hasn’t Hydrogen Gone Mainstream?

For many years, scientists have salivated at the prospects of a material that could significantly extend the life of Li-ion batteries and allow them to last longer between charges. They discovered that a lithium-carbon dioxide amalgam fits the bill beautifully since it possesses up to 7x higher energy density than common Li-ion batteries. One little problem has been dogging them, though: they just couldn’t figure a way to make them last beyond a few charge cycles--that’s until now. 

Only last year, researchers at MIT demonstrated a prototype that lasted a grand total of 10 charge cycles. The new version by the University of Illinois is, therefore, a big step-up in terms of the charge-cycle shellacking it can take before giving up the ghost.

The technical cul-de-sac that the researchers have managed to overcome is the tendency of carbon to buildup on the catalyst during charging.

How it works

According to Amin Salehi-Khojin, associate professor of mechanical and industrial engineering at UIC's College of Engineering and author of the paper, lithium-carbon dioxide batteries have been plagued by the accumulation of carbon, which not only blocks the active sites of the catalyst but also prevents efficient diffusion of carbon dioxide and also triggers electrolyte decomposition in a charged state. 

To get around this challenge, Salehi-Khojin and his colleagues used a hybrid electrolyte in conjunction with molybdenum disulfide as a cathode catalyst to help incorporate carbon in the cycling process. In other words, the scientists created a single multi-component composite product rather than a hodgepodge of separate products which helped enhance the recycling process.

While the new batteries still cannot hold a candle to high-end Tesla batteries that can be recharged up to 5,000 times and last a million miles, 500 charge cycles is good enough to make them practical for many everyday uses including in portable power packs, smartphones, UPS systems and possibly even some EVs.

Regarding their carbon-scrubbing abilities, at this point it’s not yet clear just how much of the greenhouse gas will be going into each battery to justify their lofty carbon-friendly tag, but hey, as long as they are eating it up rather than spewing it out, it’s fair game. 

Bottomline

IBM’s results are based on estimations regarding how the battery has performed in the lab so far. 

IBM is teaming up with Mercedes-Benz Research to further develop this promising technology, meaning it might be years before it goes into commercial production.

Meanwhile, the University of Illinois batteries are still a long way from commercial production, but so far they are a good proof-of-concept energy storage device and might one day provide an ingenious way to channel all that carbon dioxide into something useful.

It’s generally a good idea to adopt an attitude of guarded optimism on reported battery breakthroughs. Plenty of battery tech appears quite promising under lab conditions but frequently struggles to translate into robust systems that are cheap and viable to be used in real-life conditions. 

The good news is that this, like most other ventures in life, is a numbers game so it may only be a matter of time before we come up with a superior Li-ion battery alternative.

By Anes Alic for Oilprice.com

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