Thursday, March 16, 2017

Better than the Li-Ion Battery?

Recently I tried to write a small survival guide for finding the good stuff on the internet. I called it Epistemology in the age of "fake news." Considering I spent most of my adult life composing that little essay, that was a remarkably lame title—I tend to forget that epistemology is not everyone's pet idea and to combine that with a trendy notion like "fake news" means that I am open to any better suggestions.

But the idea of fact-bricks is sound and I just found a pretty good example of how they can be used to evaluate a news story like the one below. Essentially the news is that one of the co-inventors of the lithium-ion battery has discovered (invented) a major improvement. The new battery will replace the li-ion's liquid / gel electrolyte with glass—which would be a major improvement in safety. Lithium would be replaced with sodium which is almost infinitely cheaper and easier to access.

Cheaper? safer? Wait there's more! The new batteries supposedly will charge much faster and be three times as energy dense. This means a car with a 200 mile range with Li-ion would have a 600 mile range with a similar-sized pack of the new batteries. This last claim is the most significant and also the one that triggered my BS sensors.

Here are the relevant fact-bricks as I see them.
  1. Historically, batteries have gotten better in small steps. A 300% improvement is an enormous leap. Show me. The producer class is about demonstration.
  2. 94 year-old guys tend to be well past their significant accomplishments in life.
  3. What works in theory or even in a lab is difficult to translate into a mass-produced consumer device. And even those products that make the leap take significant time to work out the kinks—17 years for the fluorescent bulb, for example.
On the plus side.
  1. This is an example of evolutionary improvement. Basically the only kind there is.
  2. It IS possible that someone who has devoted his life-energy to a subject just might have a final creative burst in his chosen field—even at 94.
  3. Storage is the key to making solar energy useful. If the funding is there, commercialization of this technology could happen in a much shorter time-frame than usual.
My conclusion: I will withhold judgment on the validity of the basic idea but because the chemistry is possible I will continue to follow the story. I don't expect to see these batteries for sale at Costco or Home Depot in less than five years even if everything goes right.

The 94-Year-Old Inventor Of The Lithium-Ion Battery Just Came Up With Something Better

John Goodenough is back with a new, longer-lasting battery that charges faster—and won't explode.


The inventor of the lithium-ion battery—which is likely powering the device you're reading this on right now—is 94 years old. But that hasn't slowed down John Goodenough of the University of Texas at Austin, who clearly didn't think that his previous world-changing invention was good enough. He's just invented a sequel: a better battery that lasts longer, charges faster, doesn't use any lithium, and won't explode.

One of the key components of a battery is its energy density—the amount of power it can hold for a given size and weight. That's important for keeping a slim smartphone alive all day, but it's even more important for electric cars, where a lot of a battery's energy is wasted just to move its own weight. Goodenough's new battery, developed in partnership with Cockrell School of Engineering senior research fellow Maria Helena Braga, has three times the energy density of li-ion, which means that for the same weight of batteries, a car would have three times the range.

Not only that but because Goodenough's new batteries are solid, not liquid, they're safer. If charged too quickly, a lithium-ion battery can form "metal whiskers" through its gel-filled cells, and these can short out the battery bit by bit, reducing its life, or even causing an explosion. Goodenough and Braga's new battery instead uses a kind of glass as a medium to carry the current from the positive to the negative side of the battery, which prevents these whiskers from forming.

The design incorporates other changes that increase the life of the battery. A lithium-ion battery might manage, at most, 500 power cycles—in which the battery goes from zero to full charge and back. In the lab, the Goodenough's new batteries have been cycled over 1,200 times. And because it is solid-state, the battery isn't susceptible to the cold. Unlike lithium-ion batteries, which lose functionality at -4˚F, the new battery can operate down to -76˚F.

Lack of advancement in battery technology is holding back all kinds of innovations. A super battery could, for instance, power a smartphone that lasts all week, like dumb phones used to. But they'll also be crucial in making the shift from gas to electric cars. Solar powering our own homes is also an option when you have high-storage, safe batteries in the garage or basement, to spread out the sun's juice though the night.

Lithium-ion batteries are arguably the invention that made modern portable computing possible, so it seems fitting that their creator may have come up with a breakthrough to fuel the next tech revolution. more

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