Last week I happened to catch an intriguing documentary on NOVA called Search for the Super Battery.
The topic is of intense interest to me, as the development of better, cheaper batteries is critical for both the future of electric vehicles (EVs) and for the future electrical grid. Battery improvements are needed to increase the range of EVs, and cheaper batteries can help drive down the costs of EVs so more consumers can afford them.
For the electrical grid, increased penetration of renewables poses some challenges because of their intermittent nature. Since the wind could stop blowing at any time, and the sun’s radiation can only be captured during the day, these sources of power need to be backed up. Cost-effective storage of power could enable essentially unlimited penetration of renewables into the grid.
Thus, tremendous effort has gone into battery development in recent years. The effort is paying off, with prices for battery cells falling by 70 percent between 2012 and 2017, according to PV Magazine. But costs need to continue to decline to make widespread use of utility-scale battery storage a reality.
Lithium-ion batteries have become the battery of choice in many consumer electronics such as laptops, and in electric vehicles such as those produced by Tesla. But there are a couple of problems with these types of batteries that need to be resolved.
For reasons that are explained in the documentary, the use of lithium-metal electrodes enables a greater energy density than conventional lithium-ion batteries. But lithium-metal electrodes can develop finger-like structures called dendrites that will eventually short-circuit the battery.
The solution to this problem was to replace the lithium-metal electrode with a carbon electrode with a lattice structure that houses lithium ions. Thus, the lithium-ion battery was born, albeit with a lower energy storage capacity than a battery utilizing a solid lithium-metal electrode.
Lithium-ion batteries also suffer from one other shortcoming that has been the subject of numerous news articles. If these batteries are damaged, they can explode or catch fire. This has happened in laptops, cell phones, and EVs. If damaged, all of the energy stored inside the battery can release over a short period of time, and the result can be a hot, intense fire.
Enter the battery that could change the world. It addresses both the energy density problem and the danger of fire if the battery is damaged.
The NOVA documentary profiled the work of Professor Mike Zimmerman of Tufts University. Professor Zimmerman has developed a battery that replaces the liquid electrolyte in the battery with a flame-retardant plastic. This battery won’t catch on fire if it is cut, punctured or crushed. In fact, it can continue to produce power despite significant damage.
Lithium ions produced at the lithium electrode travel through the plastic as quickly as they do a liquid electrolyte. The plastic also physically prevents the electrodes from forming the dendrites that can short out the battery. Lithium metal can be used for the negative electrode, which could potentially double the battery’s energy density.
Professor Zimmerman’s work has been done mostly in stealth. The NOVA special was reportedly the first television interview he had done on his work. He has formed a company, Ionic Materials, and recently raised $65 million to commercialize this solid-state battery. (Jump to the 30:40 mark in the video to see the portion on Professor Zimmerman’s work).
The interview didn’t mention any shortcomings with the battery or any potential challenges in commercializing it. So, I reached out to Ionic Materials to ask a few of my own questions but had not heard back from the company prior to publication of this article.
But if the battery performs as advertised, it could significantly help advance the move to greener power production, and in the penetration of EVs.
By Robert Rapier
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