In an era where we see major technological advancements within just a year or even a few months. There is one technology that falls behind significantly – batteries.
From mobile phones to electric vehicles, batteries are used in abundance for power storage. There is one particular type of battery that is favored over the others due to its high energy density, the Lithium-ion battery.
Ever since its commercialization back in 1991, the lithium-ion battery has gone through its fair share of iterations that has improved the energy density of the battery itself. The most notable one being the solid state battery which makes use of solid electrolytes instead of liquid or polymer ones. This not only improved its energy density but was also responsible for significantly reducing the cell size [3-4 microns] and allowed for the possibility of fast charging to take place without the formation of dendrites.
However, despite its efficiency, there’s only a certain number of times a battery can be charged or the capacity of power it can hold. The challenge in developing new batteries is that you can either have a battery with high energy [watt-hours] or with higher levels of power [watts] but never both. This means that they can either discharge a ton of power for a short duration of time or discharge a small amount of power for a longer duration of time.
If not all, most technological advancements have been either mechanical, electronical or algorithm related. Essentially meaning that they are ‘bit’ advancements rather than ‘atom’ related advancements, batteries falling into the latter category. As history dictates, chemical advancements and breakthroughs take a lot of time to formulate and actually make commercially available, take penicillin for example.
Multiple new battery technologies are being developed every year, but only a handful of them actually make it. These are due to 3 main reasons:
- Scaling- One of the most arduous endeavours for battery technology is scaling from the experimental level to a commercially viable one. Novel battery technologies might look good on a micro level while experimenting with small quantities in a lab but when you develop it in a larger quantity, the same chemical process might unfold in an ambiguous way. This may result in it displaying unfavorable conditions that are not suitable for commercial use.
- Funding and incurred costs- It requires hundreds of millions of dollars in funding just to get a decent start and around a billion dollars for actually completing the development of a new type of technology to reach a scale that would make it viable for commercial use. According to an analysis in energy storage by Lux Research, startups developing “next-generation” batteries i.e., beyond lithium-ion averaged just $40 million in funding over 8 years. Which is significantly short if you compare it to Tesla’s $5 billion investment in Gigafactory to produce lithium-ion batteries.
- Reliability and testing- With faulty developments in lithium-ion batteries that caused it to catch fire and sometimes even explode in the case of certain Samsung phones, extra precaution needs to be taken while developing other such technology. Which means rigorous testing and experimenting cycles that will prolong an already time-consuming development cycle.
According to recent developments, scientists are looking for alternative elements to replace lithium. Although, finding an element that has a lower density and works just as efficiently as lithium is a herculean task. This approach, however, doesn’t tackle the inherent limitations of modern-day batteries, like inefficiency in charging and discharging or the internal resistance of the batteries themselves. They should instead figure out how to store energy at high charge efficiency, and similarly, come up with storage elements that have low internal resistance.