Batteries advanced battery concept

Published on April 26th, 2014 | by Tina Casey


“Revolutionary” Advanced Battery Leaps Theoretical Maximum Boundary

April 26th, 2014 by  

Just when you thought you knew everything about the theoretical maximum capacity of batteries, along comes the Oak Ridge National Laboratory to throw you for a loop. A team of researchers at ORNL has developed a pathway for “unprecedented energy density” in a battery that has already demonstrated a 26 percent increase over its theoretical maximum.

The ORNL team tested its concept on a lithium-carbon fluoride battery, which is considered “one of the best” batteries in the single-use (non-rechargeable) class for its high energy density.

advanced battery concept

Next generation battery concept courtesy of ORNL.

Hold Your Breath On That Next-Gen EV Battery

Before we get into the nitty gritty, let’s pause and underscore that the finding involves single use batteries, so the implications for rechargeable EV batteries are remote at best.

However, according to ORNL the discovery could stretch single use battery life by “years or even decades.” That has significant implications for medical devices, remote sensors and keyless systems, and other applications where recharging is not an ideal solution.

In terms of our clean tech focus here at CleanTechnica, the improvement in lifecycle translates into significant resource conservation opportunities, including the potential for eliminating battery replacement surgery for medical devices.

Now think about how the medical device field is set to explode and you can see how a longer-lived battery comes into play.

For the record, ORNL isn’t the only federal agency interested in extending the life of lithium-carbon fluoride batteries. Army researchers are also on the case, pursuing a cathode-based track.

Secret Sauce for Next Generation Batteries

The beauty of the ONRL advanced battery discovery is that it involves a total rethinking of the role that each battery component plays.

For those of us who already forgot all the chemistry we learned in high school, here’s a quick review. Batteries consist of a cathode (positive charge), anode (negative charge), and an electrolyte, which conducts the ions (the charged particles).

Conventional battery engineering relies on the principle that each of the three components functions independently. In this system, the electrolyte is inactive in terms of maximizing battery capacity.

The ORNL team discovered that they could get the electrolyte and the cathode to interact in such a way that the electrolyte gains a capacity function to supplement the cathode.

They did that by incorporating a solid lithium thiophosphate (thiophosphate is a compound of phosphorus) electrolyte, which ORNL’s Chengdu Liang describes thusly:

As the battery discharges, it generates a lithium fluoride salt that further catalyzes the electrochemical activity of the electrolyte. This relationship converts the electrolyte — conventionally an inactive component in capacity — to an active one.

What’s All This About Lithium Thiophosphate?

If lithium thiophosphate doesn’t ring a bell, you’ll probably hear more about it soon. ORNL announced the development of a solid lithium thiophosphate electrolyte last year, the point being to replace the potentially flammable electrolyte in conventional lithium-ion batteries with a more stable electrolyte.

As for EV batteries, ORNL is running down a number of promising leads for next-generation technology including lithium-sulfur, possibly with the help of a new cathode developed by Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (the University of Arizona is also hot on the sulfur trail).

Sulfur is considered a good bet for its killer light weight – high density – low cost combo.

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About the Author

specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Tina’s articles are reposted frequently on Reuters, Scientific American, and many other sites. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Google+.

  • Rick Kargaard

    “Sulfur is considered a good bet for its killer light weight – high density – low cost combo.”

    Just a note: Sulfur is low cost because it is a by-product of oil and natural gas production. I do not believe there are any other reasonably priced sources.

    I am not sure of the implications of this.

    • Bob_Wallace

      There are other sources of sulfur, sulfur domes, etc.

      The Leaf battery uses only 4 kg of lithium, to put material use in perspective.

      • Rick Kargaard

        I was commenting on cost. Both sulfur and lithium are abundant. Extracting lithium from seawater is, however, much more expensive than mining it from ancient seabeds and sulfur production from domes has ceased due to high cost.
        Once again, I am not sure it is significant.
        If necessary, technology may solve any issues that arise.
        Prices are a factor of both supply and demand. I don’t forsee any shortage of either element in the near future.

        • Bob_Wallace

          Prices for high-purity, battery-grade lithium hydroxide range from $6,000 to $7,000 per tonne
          That’s $6 to $7 per kg (1,000 kg in tonne).

          The cost of extracting lithium from seawater is 5x or less than from lithium salts.

          The Nissan Leaf uses 4 kg of lithium. At current market prices that’s $24 to $28 per Leaf.

          If extracted from seawater it would be $140 ($28 x 5) or less.

          Extrapolating up from a 70? mile range Leaf to a 200 mile range EV – a bit less than 3x as much lithium.

          $84 based on current prices. About $400 if extracted from seawater.

          If we had to go to seawater for our lithium it would not be a deal killer.
          There are approximately 230,000,000,000 tons of lithium in seawater.

          • Rick Kargaard

            Producing lithium and or sulfur at any cost has external costs just as oil or gas has. Most of the cost of the more expensive methods will likely be in the form of energy used.
            Sulfur from domes and lithium salts are often produced from wells by injecting heated water to produce a brine.This is a very similiar method to what is used to produce much of oil sands bitumen.
            Lithium is often a by-product of potash production just as sulfur is a by-product of oil and gas production. Both sulfur and potash are used as fertilizers.
            At some point, demand or decreasing supply will put pressure on prices.
            They may not be a deal breaker, but lowering the cost of electric cars is neccessary and any extra cost at production expands greatly at the retail level.
            I am certain that any manufacturer is looking carefully at the possibility of increasing cost before committing substantial capital.
            The small number of batteries used for electric cars today is unlikely to have a large effect, but replacing the global fleet may be problematic.
            As an aside, 30 years ago there were huge stockpiles of sulfur all over Alberta. Today it is a valuable by-product and the once familiar yellow piles have all but disappeared.

          • Bob_Wallace

            Argentina, Australia, Bolivia, Brazil, Canada, China, “Portugal and Zimbabwe have roughly 13 million metric tons of lithium that can be extracted. Bolivia has 5.4 million tons of lithium salts.

            A new find in Wyoming seems to be enormous. ” the entire 2,000-square-mile Rock Springs Uplift could contain up to 18 million tons of lithium”


            Large deposits of lithium salts have been discovered in Afghanistan, not yet measured AFAIK.

            The Nissan Leaf uses 4 kg of lithium. A 200 mile Leaf would use about 12 kg. 83 200 mile EVs in a tonne.

            13 million tonnes of lithium would supply over a billion EVs. Plus Wyoming. Plus Afghanistan.

            And then we recycle.

          • Rick Kargaard

            You don,t see mining a 2000 square mile area as having an environmental downside?

          • Bob_Wallace

            I don’t see any perfect solutions.

            The damage and destruction created by extracting, transporting and consuming fossil fuels is so enormous that we can make some fairly large messes with our replacement technologies and still come out way ahead.

            If anyone every invents the perfect solution we can switch over to that. In the meantime we need to be going full speed ahead toward eliminating fossil fuels.

          • Rick Kargaard

            The surface mining area of the Athabasca oil sands is less than 250 sq. miles. If the total area that is shallow enough to mine were developed it would amount to only about 1800 sq. miles (an unlikely scenario.)

          • Bob_Wallace

            What’s the total greenhouse gas production from the Athabasca oil sands? Include total from extraction through consumption.

        • Anthony Scalzi

          Sulfur can also be obtained as a byproduct of smelting metal sulfide ores.

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