Will the much needed breakthrough battery please stand up?
At a local event surrounding the press tour of the Ford Focus plug-in, one speaker tried to simplify the complex chemistry and physics of battery power by saying you take anything from the left of the Periodic Table and mix it with something from the right side and you create something that wants to explode. Batteries slow this process to where we can tap this explosive energy over time.
Given the right ambient conditions and flaws, the lead-acid batteries in our cars as well as the lithium-ion batteries in Dreamliners can overheat, cause fires or even explode.
A just posted AP story explains this is the main reason our cities aren’t filled with electric cars right now – it is the batteries that are holding us back. The lithium-ion battery is the latest level of battery technology and it has been around for nearly 25 years.
Many people look to the leading authority on battery technology John Goodenough, the man that essentially made first commercial lithium-ion batteries possible back in 1991. He will be honored with the National Medal of Science at the White House next month at the age of 90.
Currently the engineering professor at the University of Texas at Austin, Goodenough told the AP, "I'm working on it. I'm optimistic in a sense that I'm willing to keep working on it. I think we can do some interesting things."
Boeing made extensive use of lithium-ion technology in the design of their new airplane. This was the ultimate cause of a fire aboard a Dreamliner in Boston, and another such incident in Japan. These events were sufficient to lead authorities to ground the fleet worldwide, but the problem of overheating batteries is not a new one.
Just six years ago, during 2006 and 2007, over 46 million cellphone and 10 million laptop batteries were recalled for risks of overheating, short-circuiting and exploding. These were all lithium-ion batteries and this resulted in the addition of safety features in consumer electronics.
This problem is produced by the fact we are working at cross purposes – if a battery is good at storing energy, it is slow to give it up. If it is good at releasing energy, it is a poor way to store it. In a nutshell, this is why it’s not easy to get great range out of a single charge in an electric car.
"We need to leapfrog the engineering of making batteries," stated Lawrence Berkeley National Lab battery scientist Vince Battaglia. "We've got to find the next big thing."
No one really has a clue what that will be or when it will become apparent.
The Obama administration has spent more than $2 billion to spark innovation in the advanced battery industry, simply because they are crucial to a greener energy future. This level of concentration in one area of science has not been seen since the Manhattan Project was charged with developing the atomic bomb.