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Energy Storage energy storage breakthrough

Published on April 25th, 2016 | by Tina Casey


“Infinite” Energy Storage Finally Discovered, But There’s A Catch

April 25th, 2016 by  

The Intertubes have been buzzing with news that a research team based at UC-Irvine has created a new type of energy storage device that can last for more than 100,000 charges. For all practical purposes, that counts as an infinite battery. Under real life conditions, such a battery would most likely outlive the device it powers, and it might even outlive the owner of the device as well.

The new battery is still in the early research stage, but if it pans out, it would have a significant impact on lifecycle and supply chain issues for the ballooning number of smart phones, electric vehicles, energy storage products, and countless other battery powered devices inhabiting the Earth.

energy storage breakthrough

The Energy Storage Catch.

The new energy storage device is described in a just-published study, which you can find at the American Chemical Society under the title, “100k Cycles and Beyond: Extraordinary Cycle Stability for MnO2 Nanowires Imparted by a Gel Electrolyte.”

The research team has been tackling an alluring, next-generation approach to lithium-ion energy storage that has been giving the research community quite a headache.

Previous research has demonstrated that you can use the same material to make an even more powerful battery. All you have to do is use it in the form of nanowires (nanowires are incredibly thin strings of material) instead of thin films.

The problem is battery lifespan. All-nanowire batteries require extraordinarily long wires. As the study describes, they don’t stand up under working conditions:

By design, the ultralong nanowires in these capacitors amplify the influence of degradation processes that culminate in breakage of the nanowire because for ultralong nanowires, breakage “disconnects” a larger fraction of the total energy storage capacity of the electrode.

Nevertheless, the team has been hammering away with different formulations of the nanowire structure to see where improvements could be made. In a previous study, they achieved some improvement with the material manganese oxide (MnO2), hitting a mark of 4,000 charging cycles while retaining capacity.

That’s where the catch comes in. The battery being worked on by the team is not quite ready for its Tesla moment. It is a capacitor, which is fancyspeak for a device that holds and releases a charge in an electrical circuit.

Capacitors have many uses, but the team is some degree of labwork away from developing the kind of rechargeable battery that can power an EV or store renewable energy.

On the other hand, you have to start somewhere, and the team did set a high bar. In the study, the researchers note that some researchers have reported up to 10,000 cycles for capacitors based on nanotubes of graphene and Mn3O4 (that’s a different oxidation state of manganese). They also note that capacitors based on a-Mn2O3 thin films have been reported as high as 200,000 cycles.

A Happy Energy Storage Accident…Or Not

In the new study, the team used the same MnO2 nanowires to bump their capacitor from the range of 2,000-8000 cycles all the way up to more than 100,000. The solution was simple: they replaced a liquid electrolyte (that’s the part of a battery that holds a charge) with a gel made of poly(methyl methacrylate), aka PMMA. The glass-like material is also known by the trade name Plexiglass.

Scientific discovery is full of happy accidents, and this could be one of those. According to the study’s author cited in UC-Irvine’s press release, research team leader Mya Le Thai was “playing around” with PMMA when she hit upon the solution.

On the other hand, we’re thinking that Thai directed her research a little more purposefully than the press materials describe. PMMA has earned the attention of clean tech researchers, for example in the solar energy field, and researchers have also fiddled around with thin films of PMMA in capacitors.

Accidentally or not, the new study charts a new path for improving energy storage technology, and that’s a good thing.

Next steps probably include figuring out a way to achieve the same results with cheaper materials. Aside from MnO2 nanowires, the new capacitor also consists of a central gold wire. That’s going to be a tough row to hoe, since the gold wire is the one that enables access to the energy storage capacity of the MnO2 shell, so stay tuned.

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Photo (cropped): by Steve Zylius / UCI (UC-Irvine).

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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+.

  • Bennie The Bouncer

    “fancyspeak”? Good grief. The dumbing-down continues apace.

  • Doug

    Why is Tina allowed by Cleantechnica to use such misleading headlines? She lures you in with the prospect of a good story, but in the end disappoints with a confusing and rambling narrative that fails to prove the point of the headline.

  • Joe Viocoe

    Tina Casey is merely trolling again with a ridiculous headline that insults the intelligence of her readers (or anyone subscribed to CleanTechnica).

    • Hammarabi

      A tech writer should not be ignorant of the difference between a capacitor and a chemical battery.

    • Joseph Dubeau

      “Tina Casey is merely trolling again ”
      If don’t like reading her articles then don’t read them.
      The only Trolling I see here is your comments. I sorry if your Giga factory dreams are threaten by a tiny little lab experiment.
      What can you do about, those scientists do their science?

    • Joseph Dubeau

      “Tina Casey is merely trolling again ”
      If don’t like reading her articles then don’t read them.
      The only Trolling I see here is your comments. I sorry if your Giga factory dreams are threaten by a tiny little lab experiment.
      What can you do about, those scientists do their science?

      • Joe Viocoe

        Unfortunately, you can’t know it’s her article until after you click, and you only know it’s b.s. after reading a little bit.
        It’s called click baiting.

        Your Tesla hate is showing extra desperation, following my comments, and trying so hard to connect it to Tesla. This article has nothing to do with your preoccupation with them, so please, get off their nuts.

        • Joseph Dubeau

          She is a science writer.
          I don’t hate Tesla. I like Tesla Motors and Elon Musk.
          I don’t like this Fanboyism that attacks all other EV and battery manufacturers. Or any article that has the word “hydrogen” in it.

          “It’s called click baiting.” you call her a troll.
          Your words “Tina Casey is merely trolling again. “

          • Joe Viocoe

            Your comment history reflects your hate. It flooows through you.

          • Joseph Dubeau

            I attack haters all the time especially personal attack on Elon.
            ” It flooows through you.” – Star Wars really?
            A monk that kills people is no Buddha to me.

          • Joe Viocoe

            Wow, you’ve got issues. This isn’t the place to air them.

          • Joseph Dubeau

            You just sink more and more into your irrational pit.
            Are your feeling hurt? That was not my intent.

          • Joe Viocoe

            Not hurt at all. More sad for you.

            I think Hater isn’t the right word for you anymore. Contrarian fits it better.
            You seem to detract from whatever gets people excited. You’ve got a chip on your shoulder about Star Wars? It is pop-fantasy , who cares? But you take it to heart.
            People are excited about Tesla… so you feel you’ve got to play the contrarian position, and go against them. People are unexcited about Hydrogen, you play the contrarian position there too.

            It is painfully obvious that Tina really jumped the shark here with her headline… but you look for the contrarian position, and defend such ridiculousness.

          • Joseph Dubeau

            Cheer them on, every car maker that makes an EV.
            3 against, 4 positive and 2 are neutral.

          • Bob_Wallace

            If the two aren’t through then please exchange emails and bang on each other in private.

            It’s really boring if one isn’t engaged in the dust up….

      • TinaCasey

        Right you are Joseph Dubeau. Honestly, I figured that if I used scare quotes around “infinite” and included “but there’s a catch” in the headline our readers could get enough information to decide if they really wanted to read the article or not.

        • vensonata

          Tina, I fear you overestimate the capacity of some the readers. They can be deadly serious these techy types. It is a little on the spectrum to not sense irony, raised eyebrows, mischievous smirks, on the written page. Come on people, did you literally expect an “infinite energy storage” device? If so, go back to college and take some arts courses for balance.

          • Shalita Lita

            I don’t look to tech writers for comedy or irony. I can’t get those 5 minutes back.

          • vensonata .

            Even Einstein had a sense of humor. Newton…not so much. You appear to be of the Newtonian disposition.

          • Shalita Lita

            You might be right. I’m not much of a jokester when I’m researching stock trends. I’ll make a note to come back to Cleantechnica only when I’m looking for a chuckle.

        • Aredmossinel

          The problem with the title is the demonstrated technical illiteracy. Storage is not cycling. They have different meanings. A perfect battery has high levels of both. Lithium- ion has great storage and poor cycling. Capacitors have poor storage and great cycling. Ultracapacitors of various flavors trade for a middle ground but are usually not enough for the requirements of personal electronics with daily use models. This of course ignores the differences between power density and energy density for the moment which is why you can find ultracaps as starter batteries but can’t keep the lights or radio on longer than a few minutes.

          The nice thing about the result is that a design optimization for capacitor designs might have implications for battery design by supplying more robust electrodes. It is not demonstrated that the upgrade scales to the energy density of a battery. Also, the length of the nanowire is very weakly coupled to its utility in these designs.

  • vensonata

    Why is this news, if it is “just” a capacitor? Ultracapacitors have a million cycles, and have had for a decade. There must be something else to this. I read another article on a different site where the author seemed to think this was a battery suitable for phones, etc. Is the technique possibly applicable to lithium anodes to prevent degradation? It is intriguing but not at all clear, though I have not read the full paper on it.

    • phineasjw

      All true as far as I can tell.

      Ultracapacitors have been around for years and have constantly been the subject of outrageous claims. EEStor was one of the most famous claimants — with promises of a breakthrough technology that they never would fully demonstrate nor subject to independent testing (until recently). https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/EEStor

      Ultracapacitors have a significantly lower charge density than batteries, which is why they’re not currently powering cell phones or cars and won’t be until that physics problem is solved. Eventual testing of EEStor’s incredible claims found that their product’s energy density was actually an order of magnitude or two below that of Lithium Ion batteries.

      The title of the post is fairly deceptive in my mind, as well. It’s not “unlimited storage” that’s being implied, but rather “unlimited charge cycles”. That’s a big distinction in my opinion.

      I understand that we like to hear about various “breakthroughs”, but we should be more careful about extrapolating them to the extraordinary claims made in this title.

      • vensonata

        Yes, eestor was a hoot, wasn’t it? But Maxwell ultracapacitors are standard mainstream storage devices. They actually work quite well as starter batteries in cars. You are right about their energy density, but I remain mystified about exactly what the product in the article really is.

        • vensonata

          http://www.maxwell.com/esm/ is an example of an ultracapacitor starting battery for a class 8 diesel semi.

        • vensonata

          Apparently from the report this applies to batteries as well: “These experiments demonstrate for the first time that nanowire-based battery and capacitor electrodes are capable of providing extremely long cycle lifetimes”

      • passerby

        Independent testing of Eestor may have found it is less than lithium but it is still higher than today’s dry electrolytic ultracapacitors. The company is finally making the smart move and licensing what they already have to fund further development.

        • vensonata .

          Eestor…come on, a scam from beginning to end.

          • passerby

            Tell that to Intertek. They’re only the largest product testing lab in the world, what do they know?

  • DecksUpMySleeve

    Little by little finding ways around the hurdles..

    • bink

      its a capacitor. just a cheaper capacitor that is it

      • DecksUpMySleeve

        For now.

        • Joe Viocoe

          No, not for now… fundamentally different device. Not simply waiting for evolution, but would be a complete redefining of the concept.

          • DecksUpMySleeve

            Well the whole non-liquid plexiglass pairing could cross over.

          • Kieran Delaney

            I love how many conceited, self-important, sanctimonious little c**ts there are on the internet…

            Get a life. Seriously.

  • omar

    It is already ship as the lifetime will be multiplied by 3 the life time of the actually ship matarial

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