Someday, 18650 lithium ion battery cells — the building blocks for electric vehicles and energy storage today — will be on display at the Smithsonian and people will marvel at how such crude devices were the heart of the clean transportation and clean energy revolutions.
“What are those funny looking things?” your grandkids will ask, just as kids today marvel at the room-sized computers packed with wires and tubes that were less powerful than your average cellphone today. Technology never stands still and there are enormous profits for those who can envision the future and make it a reality before anyone else does.
Quartz has an article this week about a company called Solid Power that has just nailed down $20 million in new investments from Samsung, A123 Systems, and Hyundai Cradle. Interesting to see A123 Systems on that list, as it has already crashed and burned once in its quest for the next new thing in batteries before being brought back to life by fresh investments from China.
Quartz reached out to a number of battery experts, all of whom agreed Solid Power may actually be close to a breakthrough for solid state batteries that are affordable and pack up to double the power density of the lithium ion batteries in common usage today.
The Solid Power prototypes are good for about 200 charging cycles and have a power density of 300 watt-hours per kilogram — 20% more than conventional batteries. The solid electrolyte is made up of lithium, sulfur, and phosphorus. Replacing the liquid electrolyte in normal battery cells with solid materials eliminates one of the major factors in battery fires. As researchers figure out how to pack more energy to each cell, the risk of catastrophic meltdown and/or fire increases.
The Solid Power battery needs to operate at higher than room temperature to be effective. Some of the money raised will go into make it work at lower temperatures, increase energy density further, and bring down the cost of manufacturing the new cells.
Keep in mind that Volkswagen, which is still one of the largest car manufacturers in the world, is depending on solid state batteries to be commercially available to power its upcoming EV lineup, but there is no guarantee that solid state batteries will be actually be available when Volkswagen needs them, which means the companies plans to become the largest EV manufacturer must be taken with a grain of salt.
Sodium Ion Battery Research
Speaking of salt, researchers at the University of Birmingham are searching for ways to replace the lithium in today’s batteries with sodium. Lithium is in limited supply and could get quite expensive in coming years. Bloomberg New Energy Finance estimates worldwide demand for batteries will explode from 100 gigawatt-hours (GWh) today to 1,500 GWh by 2030, which could send lithium prices through the roof. Some observers have gone so far as to suggest future wars may be fought over lithium instead of oil.
Sodium, by contrast, is plentiful and cheap, but it can’t just be substituted straight up for lithium. The researchers used advanced computational modeling to predict precisely how to make the switch. The computer modeling also showed how to create sodium ion anodes capable of handling 7 times more electrical charge than a graphite equivalent.
In research published in the Journal of the American Chemical Society, lead author Andrew Morris said: “This is a huge win for computational materials science. We predicted how phosphorus would behave as an electrode in 2016 and were now able, with Professor Grey’s team, to provide insights into experiment and learn how to make our predictions better. It’s amazing how powerful combined theory-experimental approaches are.”
The usual caveats apply — this is research that is promising in the lab but still a long way from being used in commercial applications. Still, the field of battery research is bubbling with ferment these days. Discoveries we can scarcely imagine are in the offing. They better be. The world can’t wait much longer for the clean energy revolution to arrive.
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