Batteries are a hugely important technology. Modern life would be impossible without them. But many engineers find them disappointing and feel that they could be better still. Produce the right battery at the right price, these engineers think, and you could make the internal-combustion engine redundant and usher in a world in which free fuel, in the form of wind and solar energy, was the norm. That really would be a revolution.
It is, however, a revolution that people have been awaiting a long time. And the longer they wait, the more the doubters wonder if it will ever happen. The Joint Centre for Energy Storage Research (JCESR)...hopes to prove the doubters wrong. It has drawn together the best brains in energy research from America’s national laboratories and universities, along with a group of interested companies. It has money, too. It has just received a grant of $120m from the country’s Department of Energy. The aim, snappily expressed, is to make batteries five times more powerful and five times cheaper in five years…
The first test of any combination of substances that comes out of the Materials Project, or anywhere else, will be to beat the most successful electricity-storage device to emerge over the past 20 years: the lithium-ion battery. Such batteries are now ubiquitous. Most famously, they power many of the electric and hybrid-electric cars that are starting to appear on the roads. More infamously, they have a tendency to overheat and burn. Two recent fires on board Boeing’s new 787 Dreamliners may have been caused by such batteries or their control systems. Improving on lithium-ion would be a feather in the cap of any laboratory… McKinsey, a business consultancy, reckons that lithium-ion batteries might be competitive by 2020 but… there is still a lot of work to do. Moreover, pretenders to lithium-ion’s throne are already emerging.
The leader is probably the lithium-air battery…The lithium-air approach has consequently generated a lot of hype. It has problems, though, which will take years of research to resolve. Lithium-air batteries are hard to recharge and extremely temperamental. The chemical reaction which powers them is not far removed from spontaneous combustion. Lithium-air batteries are thus highly inflammable and require heavy safety systems to stop them catching fire. Luckily, the researchers at JCESR have other irons in the fire. One is the multivalent-ion battery….
The second transformation, besides electric cars, that better batteries might bring about is what is known as grid-scale storage. If this could be done cheaply enough it would revolutionise the economics of wind and solar energy by making the main problem with such sources—that the sun does not always shine and the wind does not always blow—irrelevant. To this end, Argonne’s researchers are working on what are known as flow batteries…Unlike batteries based on cells, flow batteries can be made very large indeed, so they can store vast amounts of energy. Hence the idea of using them to collect surplus power from wind turbines and solar panels and squirrel it away for use later. But their water-based electrolytes limit their potential…
A battery-driven world, then, would electrify parts of the economy, such as transport, that have been recalcitrant, and would encourage the shift from costly (and polluting) fossil fuels to “fuels” such as sunlight that cost nothing. As a manifesto for a revolution, that takes some beating. The question is, will the revolutionaries win, or will the ancien régime prevail?
Excerpts, The future of energy: Batteries included?, Economist, Feb. 2, 2013, at 67