What holds energy tech back? The infernal battery

Jan 23, 2013 by Seth Borenstein
In a Feb 27, 2002 file photo, Lew Urry holds up an original alkaline battery that was marketed in 1958, left, and a current battery in Westlake, Ohio. Urry, 76, who still works for Energizer Holdings Inc., developed the first commercially viable alkaline battery. It's been nearly a quarter of a century since the last big jump in battery technology. As 21st century technology strains to be ever faster, cleaner and cheaper, the battery, an invention from more than 200 years ago keeps holding it back. (AP Photo/Tony Dejak, File)

As 21st century technology strains to become ever faster, cleaner and cheaper, an invention from more than 200 years ago keeps holding it back. It's why electric cars aren't clogging the roads and why Boeing's new ultra-efficient 787 Dreamliners aren't flying high.

And chances are you have this little invention next to you right now and probably have cursed it recently: the infernal battery.

Boeing is the first company to make extensive use in an of technology's most advanced battery—. But a Jan. 7 battery fire aboard a in Boston, followed by a similar meltdown in Japan, led authorities around the world to ground the fleet this month, highlighting a longstanding safety problem that engineers have struggled with.

In 2006 and 2007, more than 46 million cellphone batteries and 10 million laptop batteries—all lithium ion—were recalled because of the risk of overheating, short-circuiting and exploding. Additional have been installed since then on lithium ion batteries used in consumer electronics.

As for the electric , lithium ion batteries have proved to have two major drawbacks: They are costly, and they do not allow automobiles to go far enough between rechargings. A123, a maker of lithium ion batteries for , went bankrupt last year because of poor demand and high costs after receiving a $249 million federal grant.

Lithium ion batteries, which store more energy at a higher voltage and a lighter weight than earlier types, represent the most recent big jump in battery technology. And that took place nearly a quarter of a century ago.

"We need to leapfrog the engineering of making of batteries," said Lawrence Berkeley National Lab battery scientist Vince Battaglia. "We've got to find the next big thing."

But none of the 10 experts who talked to The Associated Press said they know what that big thing will be yet, or when it will come.

"If you crack it ... it'll change the world," said Carnegie Mellon University materials science professor Jay Whitacre.

Batteries are so crucial to a greener energy future that the Obama administration has spent more than $2 billion to jump-start the advanced battery industry, including setting up what some experts say is a mini-Manhattan Project for batteries.

This undated photo provided by the National Transportation Safety Board shows the burned auxiliary power unit battery from a JAL Boeing 787 that caught fire on Jan. 7, 2013, at Boston's Logan International Airport. It's been nearly a quarter of a century since the last big jump in battery technology. As 21st century technology strains to be ever faster, cleaner and cheaper, the battery, an invention from more than 200 years ago keeps holding it back. It's why electric cars aren't clogging the roads and why Boeing's new ultra-efficient 787 Dreamliners aren't flying high. (AP Photo/National Transportation Safety Board)

To make the next breakthrough, researchers will have to master complex chemistry, expensive manufacturing, detailed engineering, a variety of different materials, lengthy testing, stringent safety standards and giant cost problems. It involves dealing with liquids and solids, metals and organic chemicals, and things that are in between, said Glenn Amatucci, director of the Energy Storage Research Group at Rutgers University.

"We're dealing with a system that you can imagine is almost alive. It's almost breathing," Amatucci said. "Trying to understand what's happening within these batteries is incredibly complex."

One reason the battery is the slowpoke of the high-tech highway is that it has conflicting functions. Its primary job is to store energy. But it's also supposed to discharge power, lots of it, quickly. Those two jobs are at odds with each other.

What holds energy tech back? The infernal battery
In a Sept. 1, 1966 file photo, a model looks at the Sinclair Micro vision set, a pocket size television set designed by Clive Sinclair that can go anywhere and claims to be the world's smallest TV, at Earls Court, London. The rectangular face plate of the cathode tube has a diagonal measurement of two inches. It's been nearly a quarter of a century since the last big jump in battery technology, which led to the lithium ion. As 21st century technology strains to be ever faster, cleaner and cheaper, the battery, an invention from more than 200 years ago keeps holding it back. (AP Photo, File)

"If you want high storage, you can't get high power," said M. Stanley Whittingham, director of the Northeast Center for Chemical Energy Storage. "People are expecting more than what's possible."

On the commercial market, lithium ion batteries are generally ones small enough to fit into cellphones. But to power bigger items—from a Prius to a 787—they get grouped together, increasing the juice they store and provide. That also increases the safety risk, experts say. The lithium ion battery that caught fire in a Boeing 787 weighed 63 pounds and was 19 inches long.

"You can't get around the fundamental thing is that lithium ion batteries are stuffed full of flammable liquid," Whitacre said.

In a Jan. 4, 1998 file photo, General Motors unveils the EV1 Parallel Hybrid vehicle at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit. It's been nearly a quarter of a century since the last big jump in battery technology. As 21st century technology strains to be ever faster, cleaner and cheaper, the battery, an invention from more than 200 years ago keeps holding it back. It's why electric cars aren't clogging the roads and why Boeing's new ultra-efficient 787 Dreamliners aren't flying high. (AP Photo/Osamu Honda, File) JAPAN OUT

Even one-in-a-million problems with lithium ion batteries can result in many fires because there are billions of them in use now, with dozens sometimes stacked together in a single device.

Experts say lithium ion batteries are more dangerous because their electrolyte, the liquid that allows ions to move between electrodes in the battery, is more flammable than the substance in older type batteries. Those older types include the lead-acid batteries in most cars and the nickel cadmium batteries that are often in video equipment and power tools.

In a Oct. 25, 1940 file photo, F. Hans, mechanic of Frankfort-on-Main, tests the battery on an electrically driven bicycle device he has constructed to help save gasoline in the Reich in Germany. The bicycle is run by a 0.4 horsepower electric motor which receives its current from an 8-volt 60-ampere battery. It's been nearly a quarter of a century since the last big jump in battery technology. As 21st century technology strains to be ever faster, cleaner and cheaper, the battery, an invention from more than 200 years ago keeps holding it back. It's why electric cars aren't clogging the roads and why Boeing's new ultra-efficient 787 Dreamliners aren't flying high. (AP Photo, File)

Still, MIT materials science and engineering professor Gerbrand Ceder and others said the safety problems can be fixed.

Change doesn't come often in the battery field.

"The big advances in happen rarely. It's been more than 200 years and we have maybe five different successful rechargeable batteries," said George Blomgren, a former senior technology researcher at Eveready and now a private battery consultant. "It's frustrating."

Alessandro Volta—for whom the volt is named—invented the first useful battery in 1800. That was long before other breakthrough inventions like the internal combustion engine, telephone, car, airplane, transistor, computer and Internet. But all of those developments have seemed to evolve faster than the simple battery.

In this January 14, 2011 photo provided by the Argonne National Laboratory, process engineer Bryant Polzin fills an 18650 lithium-ion battery cell with electrolyte using semi-automated equipment at Argonne's Cell Fabrication Facility in Lemont, Ill. It's been nearly a quarter of a century since the last big jump in battery technology, which led to the lithium ion. To make the next breakthrough in battery technology, researchers have to master complex chemistry, expensive manufacturing, detailed engineering, a variety of different materials, lengthy testing, stringent safety standards, and giant cost problems. (AP Photo/Argonne National Laboratory)

The lead-acid car battery "has been around for 150 years more or less," Whitacre said. "This is a remarkable testament to first how robust that chemistry is and how difficult change is."

Battery experts are split over what's next. Some think the lithium ion battery can be tinkered with to get major efficiency and storage improvements. Amatucci said he thinks we can get two to three times more energy out of future lithium ion batteries, while others said minor chemical changes can do even more.

But just as many engineers say the lithium ion battery has run its course.

"With the materials in the current lithium ion , we are definitely plateaued," Blomgren said. "We're waiting for something to come along that really does the job."

There are all sorts of new type batteries being worked on: lithium-air, lithium-sulfur, magnesium, sodium-ion.

In a Feb. 4, 1957 file photo, W.E. Kelley, left, and Robert C. Miller exhibit the nuclear battery, in center of ring at left, powering a radio transmitter. The tiny atomic battery, whose basic material is a radioactive waste byproduct of nuclear reactors, promethium 147, was put on display in New York for the first time. It's been nearly a quarter of a century since the last big jump in battery technology. As 21st century technology strains to be ever faster, cleaner and cheaper, the battery, an invention from more than 200 years ago keeps holding it back. (AP Photo, File)

"Right now it's a horse race," Blomgren said. "There's deficiencies in every technology that's out there. Each one of them requires a major solution."

One of the nation's best hopes for a breakthrough, said Battaglia, is John Goodenough, the man responsible for the 1979 breakthrough that led the first commercial in 1991. He will receive the National Medal of Science at the White House next month.

Goodenough is 90.

"I'm working on it," Goodenough, an engineering professor at the University of Texas at Austin, said Tuesday. "I'm optimistic in a sense that I'm willing to keep working on it. I think we can do some interesting things."

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lbuz
3.8 / 5 (6) Jan 23, 2013
Please repeat the phrase
"It's been nearly a quarter of a century since the last big jump in battery technology, which led to the lithium ion."

at least seven MORE times. That is poorly edited at best and at worst a lazy way to fill out a word count. It is also, apparently, the entire substance of the piece. Seth needs some rest and a better copy editor.
Tassie Mike
2 / 5 (4) Jan 23, 2013
Please repeat the phrase
"It's been nearly a quarter of a century since the last big jump in battery technology, which led to the lithium ion."

at least seven MORE times. That is poorly edited at best and at worst a lazy way to fill out a word count. It is also, apparently, the entire substance of the piece. Seth needs some rest and a better copy editor.


Agreed !! Is the word count in sync with the dollar??
alq131
2.8 / 5 (6) Jan 23, 2013
If the technology can't directly change, could we change the way we deal with it? We're hung up on things like charge times and charge capacity for electric cars, but what if the batteries were something that could easily be swapped? for example, you stop at a gas station with your E-car, a robot handler pulls the battery from under the car and puts in a newly charged and tested battery and you drive off. You have to pay for this service, and you don't own the battery. Yes it would be a huge change to infrastructure, but it would allow batteries to be run through testing frequently, and any that show problems (at the service station) or too many charge cycles would be removed from service and recycled.

It doesn't address fires, etc.

But you could do the same for other key technologies, laptops, etc, just drop off your battery and get a "new" one...with associated service fees, without ever owning the battery....just an idea, however good or bad it may be.
alq131
1 / 5 (3) Jan 23, 2013
Additionally, all of the batteries waiting for use at service stations could provide distributed grid backup possibly addressing renewable storage issues...
joefarah
1 / 5 (2) Jan 23, 2013
Altair nano batteries would not catch fire period. Why are these not used in Dreamliners?
Jo01
1 / 5 (3) Jan 23, 2013
That's not good enough.
But setting all fun aside: you must be blind Seth if you can't see that battery research and innovation is incredible at this moment. It is as if your say that airplane innovation is at a standstill a day before the Wright Brothers took the first flight.

J.
hemitite
5 / 5 (3) Jan 23, 2013

At least once a week on this site, there is a story about some new nano tech wonder battery with 10x the storage and discharge rates of the standard Li ion model. One would think that at least ONE of these "breakthroughs" would make it to the market and be the next big thing.
Milou
1 / 5 (1) Jan 23, 2013
Presently a German company introduced a battery pack trailer for EV cars. This extends an additional driving range some 200 miles. As "alg131" indicated above, one could place these in gas stations all around and make this the "battery pack application du jour". So much potential, possibilities!!! I guess, all one would needs is the financial backing to make it happen???

Sanescience
2 / 5 (1) Jan 23, 2013
I remember a while back research using alcohol decomposition was going to run a cell phone for a month and would be able to recharge it in a few moments by refiling. What happened to that I wondered... Google!

Then:
http://www.slu.ed...ore/4479

Now:
http://www.cfdrc....min-inc.

Based on the company description I'm guessing they got sidetracked by trying to make money in other fields when the battery thing didn't advance as quickly as hoped.

But that said it has got to be coming. My prediction is that a nontoxic fuel cell with micro-pump chips and the energy densities of a hydrocarbon fuel would fit the description of an "improvement".

Granted, not recharged via electric reversal... yet.
dschlink
1.5 / 5 (2) Jan 23, 2013
Altair nano batteries


Could be because it is a tiny company ($3M/yr) that has been unable to produce batteries that work in quantity and had to sell its technology to China because of their production problems?
antialias_physorg
5 / 5 (1) Jan 23, 2013
Altair nano batteries would not catch fire period. Why are these not used in Dreamliners?

Because they are expensive and - for the same amount of energy content - much heavier. In airlaine construction weight is of primary importance.
sender
1.3 / 5 (3) Jan 23, 2013
Sounds like the world of electrical engineering needs to move to miniaturized generation systems like a plasma air-breathing nano-turbine.
Howhot
3 / 5 (2) Jan 23, 2013
Everyone knows that the next generation will be the rechargeable aluminum and air battery. I'm surprised everyone is still stuck on Li. Al has 4 free electrons, Na and Li are 2 and 1.
Sanescience
5 / 5 (1) Jan 24, 2013
@Howhot: I must have missed the recent articles on this. All I find are descriptions like this:
"long shelf-life and high energy density vs complex and low efficiency. Aluminum-air batteries obtain their energy from the interaction of aluminum with air. The incoming air must be filtered, scrubbed of CO2, and dehumidified; the water and electrolyte must be pumped and maintained within a narrow temperature range - hence the complexity of the battery. The batteries are not electrically recharged but are "refueled" by replacing the aluminum anodes and the water supply."

http://www.thermo...doc.html

Do you have a link you can share for an improvement to this situation?
FMA
1 / 5 (1) Jan 26, 2013
We are all have problem with portable energy supply, anyone solve this problem can become billionaire and control the world as well.
bearly
1 / 5 (2) Jan 27, 2013
Any big leap in technology will just be stolen and buried by the government. On average they sieze over 5000 patents every year due to "national security interests". There will only be progress if it allows them to stay in power.
Howhot
5 / 5 (1) Jan 28, 2013
@Sanescience, I was just kidding around. No one is doing Al-Air batteries commercially as far as I know. However, nanotechnology is changing a lot of things and is having an impact in the design of better anodes for Li cells. It just takes a few well placed grants and you might see a nano-fabricated Al-Air battery.

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