Lithium-Sulfur Battery Race Heats Up

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Researchers at Oak Ridge National Laboratory are hot on the trail of a lithium-sulfur battery that packs four times the punch of conventional lithium-ion batteries. Given the low cost of sulfur, if the technology can be commercialized it would have a huge impact on the market for energy-storing devices powered by wind, solar or other forms of renewable energy. The low cost lithium-sulfur combo could also open up the electric vehicle market, and another project at the University of Arizona is already working along that track. As Satchel Paige would say, don’t look back, Oak Ridge. Something might be gaining on you.

low cost EV batteries with sulfur-lithium battery technology
Sulfur-lithium battery courtesy of ORNL.

Lithium-Sulfur Battery From Oak Ridge National Laboratory

The new lithium-sulfur battery solves a “catch-22” that has bedeviled several generations of energy storage researchers, namely, the liquid electrolytes used in conventional lithium-sulfur batteries. The liquid dissolves the lithium-sulfur compound to help conduct ions through the battery, but that also contributes to a rather short-lived battery.

To get around that obstacle, the ORNL team developed a unique class of solid, sulfur-based materials that perform as well as lithium oxides, in terms of the ability to conduct ions.

The battery consists of a sulfur-enriched cathode paired with a lithium anode and a solid electrolyte (btw the electrolyte material is also unique to ORNL). Here is the result as described by ORNL:

“The new ionically-conductive cathode enabled the ORNL battery to maintain a capacity of 1200 milliamp-hours (mAh) per gram after 300 charge-discharge cycles at 60 degrees Celsius. For comparison, a traditional lithium-ion battery cathode has an average capacity between 140-170 mAh/g. Because lithium-sulfur batteries deliver about half the voltage of lithium-ion versions, this eight-fold increase in capacity demonstrated in the ORNL battery cathode translates into four times the gravimetric energy density of lithium-ion technologies.”

Also of note is the safety improvement of the new battery, which eliminates the flammability risk posed by the potential for liquid electrolytes to react with lithium metal.

Don’t Look Back…

Barely a month ago, CleanTechnica reported on a research team at the University of Arizona, which has also been making progress on the lithium-sulfur front with a simple process for converting sulfur to a new form of plastic. The process uses waste sulfur created from petroleum refining, and it outperforms elemental sulfur when used in lithium-sulfur batteries.

For that matter, earlier today we also took note of an altogether different alternative battery technology under development at Los Alamos National Laboratory, based on carbon nanotubes doped with nitrogen, and our sister site has been tracking the development of lithium-air batteries (then there’s also zinc-air, but you get the idea).

More And Better EV Batteries

Aside from greater energy density and lower cost, lithium-sulfur technology also has a weight advantage over li-ion EV batteries, which are extremely heavy. In terms of their potential use in EVs that gives lithium-sulfur batteries a nice little twofer, contributing to an EV that weighs less and costs less, too.

You could stretch that into a threefer, when you take into account the use of reclaimed waste sulfur in lithium-sulfur batteries.

As for smaller electric devices and portable electronic gear, consider that mainstream lifestyle technology is drifting farther and farther away from the tether of a wall outlet, let alone an extension cord. The next logical step is to push lightweight, portable energy scavenging/storage devices into the mainstream, and low cost technology like lithium-sulfur could be the key that unlocks the door.

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Tina Casey

Tina specializes in advanced energy technology, military sustainability, emerging materials, biofuels, ESG and related policy and political matters. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on LinkedIn, Threads, or Bluesky.

Tina Casey has 3138 posts and counting. See all posts by Tina Casey

22 thoughts on “Lithium-Sulfur Battery Race Heats Up

  • This is superb news. My only question is, how is the recharging performance?

    Imagine a Tesla Model S with a Li-S battery that weighs as much as the current Lithium-ion batteries. It would have over four times the range(once you factor in the additional lightness), and the cost would be less. You could drive across a third of the United States before having to charge. Range anxiety would completely cease to exist. EVs would explode into the market.

    • Which is exactly why the current US administration will move to delay if not block it, as is being done with VW TDI engines made in North Carolina that Obummer won’t allow to be sold in this country. They get over 60 MPG in cars and Europe and he’s afraid he’d lose out on precious tax revenue to pay for his socialist and constitutional shredding antics. Never mind the fact that people have cut back significantly on their driving as a result of the high price of gas, reduced family outings, visits to other parts of the country etc. that they would likely resume if they could afford it, purchasing more durable goods, entertainment and services (which coincidently are all taxed and would balance the revenue stream as well as put more people to work), . They managed to fail Solyndra and others, how dare Tesla Motors be successful. 😉

      • Are you pulling my leg?

    • Why does anyone listen to this guy J_JamesM – if they do…

      He doesn’t have an engineering degree.

      He’s pulling everyone else’s leg (see comment below) by pretending to be a competent observer worthy of input.

  • The Lab news are always way more exciting than what actually happens in
    production-scale application. The real questions are: cost/KWh, maximum number of possible charging-recharging cycles , how fast you can charge these batteries, and any after-life disposal issues. Unless and until these real-life issues are satisfactorily addressed, this new technology will not take off anytime soon.

    • As the article suggests the tempo of battery developments in the lab is a cause for hope that some at least will reach commercialisation and at the very least it looks like steady incremental improvements based on technology as well as process optimisation are in the pipeline.

      • Indeed. What is implemented is usually not as extreme as what can be accomplished under laboratory conditions- after all, certain compromises need to be made in order to satisfy real-world cost, production, infrastructure, and conditional requirements, and so on.

        What these discoveries tell me, though, is that there are absolutely myriad improvements that could be made, some of them quite drastic. Whilst a “silver bullet” may or may not be in the cards(though you never know- the invention of the Jet engine was as transformative as it was an exponential improvement), these discoveries can add up and become a steady source of continued refinement, improvement and efficiency.

        • Something may have snuck out of the labs and onto the testing grounds. I ran across this today…

          “On Wednesday this week at the annual conference of Canada’s Automotive Parts Manufacturers’ Association, GM’s head of global R&D let his guard down slightly in saying prototype electric cars now being evaluated on U.S. test tracks have triple the energy density of a Chevrolet Volt, and close to double that of a Tesla Model S.

          A Volt has about 140 watt-hours per kilogram energy density in its LG Chem lithium-ion T-shaped battery pack. Tesla’s “skateboard” chassis now uses Panasonic cells that reportedly deliver as much as 240 Wh/kg, and Tesla CEO Elon Musk said to expect more.

          And so has GM in so many words.

          “Today there are prototypes out there with 400 Watt-hours per kilogram,” said Dr. J. Gary Smyth, executive director of Global Research and Development, General Motors Company.

          Smyth added the mystery batteries will cost much less than batteries in today’s electric cars and they’ll have a “big impact” on the auto industry and “it completely changes the equation” on cost, range, and vehicle packaging.

          • What a thunderous piece of news! People who want to buy electric may want to hold off for half a decade, just to see how far the technology goes… Who would want to buy a car, just to have it become completely obsolete in a few months? Hopefully it will be easier someday to incorporate advancing battery technology into existing electric vehicles.

          • Who?

            Perhaps someone who wants to start saving money now rather than waiting to see what develops.

            If you live in a multi-car household and an “here right now” EV like the LEAF could do one of your commutes it’s work working the pencil to see how much you would or would not save.

            For a household that is in need of a new car the LEAF is actually cheaper to purchase than a stripped down Camry.

            If a LEAF (or other EV) works now then it will likely continue to work for that commute.

          • I’m sure that’s the case, but still, I’d feel awfully foolish if I threw about $30,000 after a Leaf which can only be used as a commuter car, only to have a $20,000 car that can travel 300 miles come out just a bit later.

            I usually find it to be a better policy to wait things out, let the industries get the bugs out. EVs may have a lengthy pedigree, but in today’s market they’re still relatively nascent.

          • After the federal subsidy the LEAF sells for $21,300.

            A LEAF would save the average driver over $1,000 per year in fuel costs.

            (I understand what you’re saying.)

          • Add the extra $2500 California incentive, HOV lane access and the LEAF as a commuter vehicle becomes a no-brainer for 2 car households.

          • Easy to do swapping of batteries and other major components would be nice. I doubt it will happen because the vehicle manufacturers will probably still want to sell lots of vehicles.

            I think that both the EV adoption and the battery “gravimetric” energy density + cycle counts will follow an S or logistic curve. When battery EVs have displaced ICEs the car manufacturers will revert to type and the pace of inovation will reduce.

          • There are simply too many players in the vehicle manufacturing to allow a reversion to “planned obsolescence”.

            That strategy significantly damaged the US car industry and provided the opening for Japanese manufactures to become major producers.

            It’s going to be “evolve or die”.

          • Hey, how’d that “thunderous piece of news” turn out in the long run? Anybody deliver those batteries yet?

            Did the equation change? Or did they plot it on a log-log graph that you complain that you cannot read?

        • James, you have no training in science or technology, so what you have to say about what these discoveries (if there are any real “discoveries” here) is about as useful as a palm reader at a county fair telling the future.

  • Looks like an application for an Ultra-Cap to boost power.

  • An Ultra-Cap incorporated with the Li-S battery , I meant.

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  • Why is there no graphene in this battery? Without graphene I don’t consider it a breakthrough 🙂

    • I understand they used pencils to take notes as they worked.

      Breakthrough achieved.

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