Published January 16 2021

The Latest Breakthroughs In The Battery War

Author: Richard Kaner

Originally published: January 16, 2021

With the global electrification drive in full swing, electric cars have constantly been improving in terms of mileage, performance, charging time – and costs. And, Wright’s law has so far proven to be right. According to Wright’s Law, aka the learning curve effect, lithium-ion (Li-ion) battery cell costs fall by 28% for every cumulative doubling of units produced. The battery pack is the most expensive part of an electric vehicle, and the sticker prices of EVs have been falling along with declining battery costs. By 2023, the cost of Li-ion batteries is expected to fall to around $100/kWh – low enough for EVs to achieve price parity with their gas-powered brethren. 

Still, Li-ion batteries come with a suite of clear disadvantages. Capacity and ability to deliver peak charge deteriorates over time; they bleed a lot of heat and require weighty cooling systems to be integrated into their design, and the batteries can explode or catch fire if damaged in an accident thanks to the flammable liquid they contain.

Over the years, scientists have been returning to the drawing board and have redesigned the original li-ion battery to overcome some of these shortcomings.

From graphene-based energy storage and lithium-ion batteries with water to cheaper sodium-based batteries and solid-state batteries, here are the latest advances in battery technology.

#1. Non-Flammable Graphene-Based Battery Packs

Ultrathin, incredibly strong, superconductive, cheap – and impossible to use. Those are some of the traits of graphene, the gee-whiz nanomaterial that was supposed to forever change the face of materials science as we know it. Yet, save for a few novel applications, the graphene promise has mostly remained mere hype 16 years after two Manchester University professors first figured out a way to extract it from graphite.

But that has not stopped starry-eyed scientists from touting a graphene superbattery that can charge faster, hold a lot more power, and cost a fraction of conventional lithium batteries.

And, finally, one little-known company has turned this dream into reality.

Los Angeles battery startup Nanotech Energy has announced that it will start taking pre-orders for its high-performance, graphene-based, non-flammable, lithium-Ion battery packs that promise to provide safer and more powerful energy storage than traditional lithium-ion battery packs.

Nanotech’s new batteries are powered by the company’s graphene-based electrodes and proprietary non-flammable electrolyte and can be fully customized to fit any form factor or container, thus eliminating the need for OEMs to redesign existing products or compromise new ones. These non-flammable battery packs can be used to power electric vehicles, bikes, consumer electronics, military equipment, and other electrified devices.

“Battery storage has yet to reach its potential–until now. Unlike traditional battery packs that pose serious fire risks, Nanotech Energy’s non-flammable lithium-ion batteries are intrinsically safe and environmentally-friendly, which we believe will inspire more industries to switch from gas to electric. Ultimately, our batteries will enable faster adoption by significantly decreasing the amount of time and accumulative costs OEMs currently incur related to testing and integrating new battery technology,” Dr. Jack Kavanaugh, Chairman, CEO and co-founder of Nanotech Energy, has said in a press release.

Nanotech Energy was recently honored with a CES 2022 Innovation Award for its non-flammable, graphene batteries

#2. Lithium-ion battery with water

The risk of fires or explosions due to manufacturing defects, damage, or thermal runaway is an Achilles heel for li-ion batteries. In recent years, several automakers, including General MotorsAudi, and Hyundai, have recalled electric vehicles over fire risks and have warned of the associated dangers.

Thankfully, researchers have now developed a prototype lithium-ion battery that uses water as an electrolytic solution, replacing a flammable organic solvent.

In an abstract published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, a team of scientists has developed a prototype that achieves “higher ionic conductivity, environmental benignancy, and high safety.”

The battery’s major drawback: a lower performance level and can only be used in lower-voltage conditions.

The Asahi Shimbun has shared more details about the new aqueous battery:

[Scientists] discovered that using a molybdenum oxide for the negative electrode can achieve performance levels required for practical use. Even after the battery was recharged 2,000 times, its capacity dropped by less than 30%.

As water is broken down when high voltage is applied, the prototype battery can be used only in lower voltage conditions in comparison with batteries based on the organic solvent.

Its weight energy density – an indicator of battery performance – is about half the level of a conventional product, which means a larger body size is essential to produce a battery with the same capacity.

The water battery’s lower weight energy density means it might not be readily applicable for long-range EVs but can still be useful in short-range EVs as well as solar and wind energy storage.

#3. Cheaper sodium batteries

In yet another battery breakthrough, researchers at the University of Texas at Austin have developed a new sodium-based battery material that is highly stable and capable of recharging as quickly as a traditional lithium-ion battery.

For about a decade, scientists and engineers have tried to develop sodium batteries that replace both lithium and cobalt used in current lithium-ion batteries with cheaper, more environmentally friendly sodium. Unfortunately, earlier versions of sodium batteries have been plagued by needle-like filaments called dendrites that grow on the anode and cause the battery to electrically short and even catch fire or explode.

However, the latest sodium battery by the University of Texas at Austin solves the dendrite problem and recharges as quickly as a lithium-ion battery.

We’re essentially solving two problems at once. Typically, the faster you charge, the more of these dendrites you grow. So if you suppress dendrite growth, you can charge and discharge faster, because all of a sudden it’s safe,” David Mitlin, a professor in the Cockrell School of Engineering’s Walker Department of Mechanical Engineering and Applied Research Laboratory, has said.

#4. GM Edges Closer to Solid-State Battery After POSCO Deal

Over the past decade, EV makers have been touting solid-state batteries as the next breakthrough in EV technology, often quoting insane performance and range. Solid-state batteries use a solid electrolyte that can take the form of ceramics, glass, sulphites, or solid polymers as opposed to the liquid or polymer gel one found in conventional lithium-ion batteries.

Solid-state batteries promise some 2-10 times the energy density of lithium-ion batteries of the same size, thanks mainly to the solid electrolyte having a smaller footprint. That means more powerful batteries without extra space, or more compact battery packs without compromising on power, longer-range electric cars, and lighter EVs. They are also expected to charge faster. 

Back in September, the world’s largest automaker, Toyota Corp. raised the stakes after announcing its intention to invest over $13.5 billion by 2030 to develop next-generation batteries, including solid-state batteries.

The Japanese automaker says it aims to reduce the cost of its batteries by 30% or more by working on the materials used in manufacturing batteries and also by improving power consumption.

And now another ICE giant is betting the farm on solid-state technology.

Last week provided the clearest sign that General Motors has a solid-state EV battery up its sleeve after it hooked up with the Korean firm POSCO Chemical to build a new battery factory in the United States. The new factory will produce material for GM’s much-heralded Ultium energy storage platform. Although Ultium energy is not a solid-state battery, the new partnership indicates that GM is edging closer to a solid-state battery.

Last spring, GM announced a joint agreement with lithium-metal firm SES (formerly Solid Energy Systems), marking a series of lithium-metal partnerships it has struck up in recent years

GM holds nearly 100 patents (49 granted and 45 pending) of its own in lithium-metal technology, and it was an early investor in SES. 

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