How we get to the next big battery breakthrough

Electric planes could be the future of aviation. In theory, they will be much quieter, cheaper, and cleaner than the planes we have today. Electric planes with a 1,000 km (620 mile) range on a single charge could be used for half of all commercial aircraft flights today, cutting global aviation’s carbon emissions by about 15%.

It’s the same story with electric cars. An electric car isn’t simply a cleaner version of its pollution-spewing cousin. It is, fundamentally, a better car: Its electric motor makes little noise and provides lightning-fast response to the driver’s decisions. Charging an electric car costs much less than paying for an equivalent amount of gasoline. Electric cars can be built with a fraction of moving parts, which makes them cheaper to maintain.

So why aren’t electric cars everywhere already? It’s because batteries are expensive, making the upfront cost of an electric car much higher than a similar gas-powered model. And unless you drive a lot, the savings on gasoline don’t always offset the higher upfront cost. In short, electric cars still aren’t economical.

Similarly, current batteries don’t pack in enough energy by weight or volume to power passenger aircrafts. We still need fundamental breakthroughs in battery technology before that becomes a reality.

Battery-powered portable devices have transformed our lives. But there’s a lot more that can batteries can disrupt, if only safer, more powerful, and energy-dense batteries could be made cheaply. No law of physics precludes their existence.

And yet, despite over two centuries of close study since the first battery was invented in 1799, scientists still don’t fully understand many of the fundamentals of what exactly happens inside these devices. What we do know is that there are, essentially, three problems to solve in order for batteries to truly transform our lives yet again: power, energy, and safety.

There isn’t a one-size-fits-all lithium-ion battery

Every battery has two electrodes: a cathode and an anode. Most anodes of lithium-ion batteries are made of graphite, but cathodes are made of various materials, depending on what the battery will be used for. Below, you can see how different cathode materials change the way battery types perform on six measures.

The power challenge

In common parlance, people use “energy” and “power” interchangeably, but it’s important to differentiate between them when talking about batteries. Power is the rate at which energy can be released.

A battery strong enough to launch and keep aloft a commercial jet for 1,000 km requires a lot of energy to be released in very little time, especially during takeoff. So it’s not just about having lots of energy stored but also having the ability to extract that energy very quickly.

Tackling the power challenge requires us to look inside the black box of commercial batteries. It’s going to get a little nerdy, but bear with me. New battery technologies are often overhyped because most people don’t look closely enough at the details.

The most cutting-edge battery chemistry we currently have is lithium-ion. Most experts agree that no other chemistry is going disrupt lithium-ion for at least another decade or more. A lithium-ion battery has two electrodes (cathode and anode) with a separator (a material that conducts ions but not electrons, designed to prevent shorting) in the middle and an electrolyte (usually liquid) to enable the flow of lithium ions back and forth between the electrodes. When a battery is charging, the ions travel from the cathode to the anode; when the battery is powering something, the ions move in the opposite direction.

Imagine two loaves of sliced bread. Each loaf is an electrode: the left one is the cathode and the right is one the anode. Let’s assume the cathode is made up of slices of nickel, manganese, and cobalt (NMC)—one of the best in the class—and that the anode is made up of graphite, which is essentially layered sheets, or slices, of carbon atoms.

Click here to continue reading...

Subscribe to the RSD email list and get the latest resource stock activity directly to your inbox, for free.

Part of the Stock Digest family of websites

Small Cap Stock Digest

MARKET SUMMARY

INDICES

Name Last Change
DOW 27335.60 0.09%
S&P 500 3004.04 0.34%
NASDAQ 8222.80 0.43%
TSX 16502.42 0.05%
TSX-V 580.17 0.00%

Resource Commodities

Name Last Change
Gold 1404.70 0.03%
Silver 15.60 0.32%
Copper 2.70 2.700
Platinum 901.00 0.67%
Oil 57.62 3.40%
Natural Gas 2.31 4.42%
Uranium 25.88 3.52%
Zinc 1.15 0

@RSDigest ON TWITTER