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Breakthrough Batteries: Fighting to be the Next Big Thing

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electric vehicles, batteries
If, say, you’re driving a Honda Civic, heating your home with natural gas and spending a lot of time on a desktop computer, you probably don’t think that batteries impact your life all that much. But you’d be wrong.

Making Power Plus dual-carbon batteries in Japan. Will they recharge 20 times faster than li-ion? (Power Plus photo)Li-ion, as it’s called, is still the state of the art for batteries. That’s not going to change as soon as next year, but there are technologies on the horizon that could mean good things for consumers—cheaper batteries yielding cheaper devices, with shorter recharge times and longer hours of use. I talked to Sam Jaffe, principal research analyst at Navigant Research, about the brave new technologies that could change everything.

Solid-state batteries. Ann Marie Sastry, the CEO of upstart Michigan-based battery company Sakti3, told me recently that her company will deliver, in two years, cells with double the energy density, but half the weight and cost. Her batteries, still a li-ion technology, do away with heavy and somewhat volatile liquid electrolytes. “The biggest advantage is in terms of safety,” Jaffe told me. “Solid electrolytes don’t present a fire hazard. The batteries also have the potential of being cheaper, but nobody has yet mass produced a solid-state battery with the energy density or cost advantages. It’s still in the labs, and a number of companies are working on various formulations.”

Another potential big player in solid-state batteries, Jaffe, said, is Colorado-based Solid Power, a big recipient of public grant funding, including from the National Science Foundation, the U.S. Department of Energy and the Defense Department’s Missile Defense Agency. If these firms succeed in the lab, these now-shadowy startup firms will become quite famous, and license their chemistry to existing battery manufacturers.

A Solid Power electric car cell. The company has been raking in the government grants. (Solid Power photo)Nickel-Manganese-Cobalt Oxide (NMC). Two big companies, Johnson Controls and Dow Kokam, are working on these cells, Argonne National Labs is working on it, General Motors and Bosch are interested, and 3M has licensed it. It could be a great battery for electric bikes. According to BatteryUniversity.com, “Combining the metals brings out the best in each. NMC is the battery of choice for power tools and powertrains for vehicles. The cathode combination of one-third nickel, one-third manganese and one-third cobalt offers a unique blend that also lowers raw material cost due to reduced cobalt content.” Jaffe says, “Everyone recognizes that if you can do a NMC cathode and a silicon anode, it would be a great battery, but nobody has yet been able to do it.” Rumors fly about breakthroughs.

Lithium sulfur. PolyPlus is a leader here. It claims, “The high specific energy of the Li-S battery is particularly attractive for applications where battery weight is a critical factor in system performance,” Sounds like a big advantage for electric cars, plus sulfur is really cheap. But Jaffe points out that these batteries, despite being very light, take up a fair amount of space—something else that’s at a premium in electric cars. And another challenge is cycle life. A battery with 100 cycles might work great in the space shuttle, but not so well in a car.

PolyPlus is working with Johnson Controls on super-lightweight NMC batteries/ (PolyPlus photo)Magnesium ion. The chief selling point: These batteries are cheap, have good energy density, and will not, repeat not, go into thermal runaway, a lithium condition that results in fires. “A chemistry that can’t go into thermal runaway makes everything easier,” Jaffe said. “But it’s further down the road—nobody’s taken it out of the lab yet.”

Metal air. Pioneered by, among others, an Israeli company, metal air batteries offer huge range for electric cars—the energy density is really high. Hearing aids use them. “Metal air comes close to the energy density of gasoline,” Jaffe said. The big obstacle is metal air batteries aren’t rechargeable, but companies like IBM, which is working on lithium air (and, more recently, sodium air) tech, are putting a lot of money into changing that. In 2012, the company said it could build a 500-mile EV battery, but it's been quiet lately. “I’m skeptical about solving the chargeability problem,” Jaffe said. “In 10 years, maybe we’ll see a metal air battery with high energy density and recharging. It could be 2020 or 2021.”

EnZinc is one company to watch. It claims, Our zinc-air battery uses a patented three-dimensional nanotechnology foam structure that significantly increases surface area and allows it to act as a supercapacitor. The technology can be used for a disposable or, for the first time, a truly rechargeable zinc-air battery.”

Dual-carbon battery. Power Plus Japan has a new and novel battery with what it calls “completely unique chemistry”—both the anode and cathode are made of carbon. The company claims that the cells can charge 20 times faster than lithium-ion, and will last through 3,000 charge cycles (compared to 1,000 for li-ion). A racing vehicle with the company’s Ryden batteries should be running around the track this summer, followed by a demonstration production line capable of 5,000 cells monthly. One reason to take this technology seriously is that the chief engineer was involved in designing cells for both the Toyota Prius and the Tesla Model S. According to Dou Kani, CEO of Power Japan Plus, “The Ryden dual carbon battery is the energy storage breakthrough needed to bring green technology like electric vehicles to mass market.” Yes, well, they all say that.

Jaffe points out that one thing these technologies have in common is that their cells use commonly available materials, and thus should be cheaper to make. That’s important, because unless battery costs follow Moore’s Law, vehicles using them are never going to take
over American roads. Here's a closer look at dual-carbon batteries on video:

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