Battery Breathroughs, July 2010

by John Rubino on July 7, 2010

Better batteries are key to a clean-tech take-over, and the breakthroughs pouring out of labs around the world make it highly likely that we’ll get there within a decade. Here’s a sampling of recent announcements:

High-Pressure Process Yields a Brand-New Material That Stores Massive Amounts of Energy
With lackluster battery tech one of the biggest hurdles standing between existing energy economies and those of the green, renewable future, there’s a lot of pressure on researchers to come up with the next big battery breakthrough. And pressure, it turns out, might be just the ticket. By exerting the kinds of super-high pressures found deep within the Earth on a unique compound, researchers at Washington State University’s Pullman campus have created a novel new material with the capacity to store huge amounts of mechanical energy as potential chemical power.

Calling the material “the most condensed form of energy storage outside of nuclear energy,” the researchers created the super-battery inside a diamond anvil cell, a small chamber that can create extremely high pressures within a confined space. The team filled the chamber with xenon difluoride, a white solid usually used to etch silicon conductors.

The science is in the squeezing; under normal atmospheric conditions, the molecules of xenon difluoride keep a respectable distance from one another. But under the intense pressures produced by the diamond anvils the molecules are forced together into metallic 3-D structures. At one million atmospheres — roughly equivalent to the pressure found halfway to the center of the Earth — the xenon difluoride is pressed neatly into these structures where the mechanical energy of all that pressure is stored in the chemical bonds between the molecules.

And just like that, the material becomes a chemical battery containing the mechanical energy from all that pressure. That raises the possibility of practical applications such as high-energy fuels, high-powered and compact batteries, or semiconductors that can function at very high temperatures.

A Portable Battery That Runs on Saltwater – or Urine
If you’ve got an electronic device, you need power either in the form of a cable or a battery. If you’ve got a battery, you still need a means of charging it. And if you’re in the military, you know that you never have exactly what you need exactly when you need it. Which is why South Korean battery makers have created the MetalCell, a magnesium battery based on 2,000-year-old technology that can be charged with saltwater or, barring that, urine.

MetalCell was designed with militaries in mind; on the modern battlefield, soldiers rely on a growing array of electronics to execute their missions, but when operating in remote areas or cut off from support, those devices can run out of juice at inopportune moments. But MetalCell can sit in the back of a Humvee, in a remote bunker, or in a locker at a forward operating base for years, waiting to power up electrical devices in a pinch.

The rugged little boxes are similar to the so-called Baghdad batteries dating to the early centuries A.D. that some researchers believe were the first voltage-creating devices. Fitted with magnesium plates inside, the MetalCell can be charged up with nothing more than the addition of saltwater. The sodium in the salt reacts with the magnesium to create a dose of low-voltage power that can power up laptop, a flashlight, night vision specs, etc. when no other source is available. The output can keep a laptop humming for more than four hours and can be recharged with fresh saltwater until the magnesium begins to deteriorate.

Soldiers can pool salt from their Meals, Ready-to-Eat (MREs) to create the a proper sodium solution, but failing that, soldiers could also charge up the MetalCell with their urine (and given the blandness of MREs, they might opt to). That’s an energy-rich resource a grunt can always lay his hands on.

Panasonic Will Market First Li-Ion Storage Battery for Home Use in 2011
Bringing power storage to the people, Panasonic will bring a home-use lithium-ion storage cell to market in fiscal 2011, making it possible for homes to store a week’s worth of electricity for later use. Panasonic — along with the recently acquired Sanyo — have already test-manufactured such a battery, which could allow for more widespread deployment of eco-friendly but inconsistent modes of power generation.

Toshiba Accelerates Development of SCiB Battery for Electric Vehicles
Toshiba Corporation has joined hands with Mitsubishi Motors Corporation to bring the SCiB battery to electric vehicles (EV). Officials with Toshiba said that the SCiB is the company’s breakthrough rechargeable lithium-ion battery that combines high levels of safety with a long life and rapid recharging, characteristics that make it highly suited to application in electric vehicles. According to company officials, the SCiB module now under development houses the SCiB cells that utilizes the capabilities of the SCiB to the fullest. It optimizes usage of individual cells in the battery and this, along with the long life cycle of the SCiB, adds to the overall durability of the battery over different cruising distances.

Company officials said that in bringing the SCiB to EVs, Toshiba has developed a new original anode material and a new electrolyte that enhances both safety and rapid recharging. The long life of the SCiB, company officials said, will promote reduction in the waste that results from battery replacement and will contribute to a society that is required to save energy and reduce environmental loads.

Nanotubes Give Batteries a Jolt
A lithium-ion battery with a positive electrode made of carbon nanotubes delivers 10 times more power than a conventional battery and can store five times more energy than a conventional ultracapacitor. The nanotube battery technology, developed by researchers at MIT and licensed to an undisclosed battery company, could mean batteries that extend the range of electric vehicles and provide longer periods without recharging for electronic gadgets, including smartphones.

Researchers have been trying to make electrodes for lithium-ion batteries from carbon nanotubes because their high surface area and high conductivity promise to improve both energy and power density relative to conventional forms of carbon. But working with the material has proved challenging–most methods for assembling carbon nanotubes require a binding agent that brings down the conductivity of the electrode, and lead to the formation of clumps of the material, reducing the surface area. The electrodes made by the MIT group, however, have a very high surface area for storing and reacting with lithium. This high surface area is critical both to the high storage capacity of the electrodes, as well as their high power: because lithium is stored on the surface, it can move in and out of the electrode rapidly, enabling faster charging and discharging of the battery.

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