The Battery Revolution

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The Battery Revolution

One of the most intractable problems we face as a modern, technological society is how to make our energy sources mobile.

Batteries have a long history, but it’s not a very noble one. The first recorded use of a battery was in the 1780s, when Luigi Galvani coupled iron and brass plates in a laboratory setting to produce an electric current that caused a frog’s leg to twitch. Nevertheless, the first practical battery wasn’t available until 1866. Despite its awkward design, heavy weight, and toxic chemicals, it was an immediate success, selling 20,000 units in two years. Making it more awkward was the fact that it required a liquid electrolyte solution to work. Dry cells weren’t common until the end of the 19th century.

All one has to do to understand how troublesome battery development has been is to look under the hood of any modern car: There is a large, heavy, and toxic wet cell, no different in principle from the ones used in the mid-1800s.

By contrast, the new, high-tech batteries that power cell phones and laptops are possible for two reasons: First, they don’t have to produce very much power. Second, they don’t have to deliver that power very rapidly.

But the pressing demand for delivering more power faster — such as in an electric car — is pushing battery technology to the limits. And the results are producing a revolution in battery design.

The most powerful and practical of all the battery designs we have today is the lithium ion battery, which has become ubiquitous in small portable devices. But those batteries are slow to charge and discharge, making them impractical for cars. The reason they’re slow is that the ions inside of them have to travel long distances to do their work.

Now, according to a report in the Journal of the American Chemical Society,1 researchers at Delft University of Technology are working to create a nano-structure in lithium ion batteries to reduce that distance drastically and speed the flow.

One of the other problems with lithium ion batteries is that they can release some of the oxygen bound up in their chemicals, which can lead to a fire or an explosion. As reported in Japan’s leading financial newspaper, Sony was forced to recall millions of those batteries when it was discovered that impurities had contaminated some of the chemicals inside, causing overheating and fire.2

The same newspaper reported that Matsushita has partnered with Toyota, while Nissan has teamed up with NEC Corporation — both in efforts to develop cars that run on newly designed lithium ion batteries...

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