Four Battery Technology Solutions That Could Shape Our Future

It does not seem that the electric car trend will perish. Sure, the economy of it does seem sketchy, and I do not believe that manufacturers would invest as much in it without generous government subsidies and incentives, but electric cars are on the roads and they are here to stay. However, the single most challenging hurdle of the further development of electric vehicles is battery technology. Since the very beginning in the 19th century, manufacturers had problems storing, or actually, creating electrons. That did not stop them from trying to create an electric car. After all, in the year 1900, 38 percent of all vehicles on American roads were electric, 40 percent steam-powered, and only 22 percent ran on gasoline.

I am not making this up - the U.S. Dept. of Energy reported that “by 1900, electric cars were at their heyday, accounting for around a third of all vehicles on the road. During the next 10 years, they continued to show strong sales.”

More than 100 years of development dramatically changed battery technology. Health hazardous batteries from the first electric vehicles have evolved into a state of the art lithium-ion and nickel-metal hydride batteries, but even to this day, they do not seem to be able to serve as a replacement for gasoline and diesel.

So, what new battery solutions will shape our future?

What Is The Main Problem With Electric Car Batteries Today?

The 2019 Nissan Leaf e+ is Here to Fix the Wrongs of all Leafs that Came Before It Drivetrain
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It turns out that the main problem with batteries is the cost, energy density, and a little fact that we may not have enough raw materials to produce them on large enough scale. But, that is a whole different story I will tackle here).

Now, the whole world eagerly waits for the next big scientific breakthrough that will, overnight, give us a battery that will be light, cheap to produce, and easy to recycle (or dispose of) while offering high energy density and longevity. The number of scientists, universities, and companies working on new battery technology is staggering and too long to mention. Honestly, this gives me hope. Batteries will evolve at a steady rate just as they have in the last decade and a half.

For now, I will give you a clear representation of the energy density of current batteries. It will show you just how long of a journey car batteries have to cross to reach the energy potential of gasoline.

Wikipedia teaches us that energy density is "the amount of energy stored in a given system, substance, or region of space per unit volume."

The 2019 Nissan Leaf e+ is Here to Fix the Wrongs of all Leafs that Came Before It Drivetrain
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For simplicity and credibility, I’ll share the explanation about energy density given by the American Physical Society:

"Gasoline energy density is 47.5 MJ/kg and 34.6 MJ/liter; the gasoline in a fully fueled car has the same energy content as a thousand sticks of dynamite. A lithium-ion battery pack has about 0.3 MJ/kg and about 0.4 MJ/liter (Chevy VOLT). Gasoline thus has about 100 times the energy density of a lithium-ion battery. This difference in energy density is partially mitigated by the very high efficiency of an electric motor in converting the energy stored in the battery to making the car move: it is typically 60-80 percent efficient. The efficiency of an internal combustion engine in converting the energy stored in gasoline to making the car move is typically 15 percent (EPA 2012). With the ratio about 5, a battery with an energy storage density 1/5 of that of gasoline would have the same range as a gasoline-powered car."

The problem is obvious; batteries still cannot store enough energy to be a viable replacement for gasoline.

To mitigate the issue, scientists do work on a number of different battery solutions and I share with you four most likely battery technologies that will shape our future. Before that, however, you have to know the basics of the battery.

2016 Tesla Model X Drivetrain
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This is how a battery works in the simplest terms:

Every batter has three main components - anode, cathode, and an electrolyte. When charged, and in a circuit (anode and cathode connected, for example with copper wire), negatively charged anode and positively charged cathode evoke a chemical reaction in the electrolyte, and produce negatively charged anions and positively charged cations. In that instance, each negatively charged anion gives up one of the electrons which then moves through the circuit (that copper wire) to the cathode. That flow of electrons makes the light in the lightbulb (if the lightbulb is linked to the circuit), or run an electric motor. The more the electrons, the more the power.

Solid State Lithium-Ion Batteries

Warp Coils Seem Closer To Reality Than A Battery With Energy Density Of Gasoline
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In comparison with the standard lithium-ion batteries have liquid electrolyte (the batteries in an EV, a laptop, or a smartphone), solid-state batteries use solid matter as an electrolyte. The advantages with the solid matter electrolyte compared the liquid electrolyte mean that the battery can be smaller, non-combustible, it can store more energy, and it can recharge quicker. If you remember, I wrote above that we are waiting for a breakthrough that will give us batteries that are "light, cheap to produce, easy to recycle (or dispose of), with high energy density and longevity." The Lithium-Ion solid-state batteries support almost all of the characteristics, except for one - they are not cheap. At least not yet.

Almost every major car manufacturer, tech giant, or smartphone developer invests heavily into the research that will give us a viable, economically sound solid-state Li-Ion battery.

Yet, we are still years away from development, although Volkswagen and Ford seem to be on the verge of introducing a Solid-State battery. Best guess - we will get it in 5 to 6 years.

By removing liquid and dangerous electrolyte solutions, solid-state lithium-ion batteries can have much tighter packaging and can provide far greater energy density. Some suggest that solid-state batteries may double energy density over the liquid lithium-ion batteries. They are still far from the energy density of gasoline, but it is a step in the right direction especially considering that electric motors are considerably more efficient.

2019 Tesla Model 3 Performance
Standard Range Standard Plus Long Range RWD Long Range AWD Performance
0-60 mph 5.6 seconds 5.3 seconds 5.0 seconds 4.5 seconds 3.2 seconds
Range Per Charge 220 miles 240 mph 325 miles 310 miles 310 miles
Drive Type RWD RWD RWD AWD AWD
Top Speed 130 mph 130 mph 140 mph 140 mph 150 mph

For example, if Tesla installed this battery in the new Model 3 Long Range that can cover 325 miles on one charge, the battery would be 30 percent lighter compared to the Li-Ion battery installed right now. That is quite a difference. It could mean more range and better performance.

Liquid Flow Batteries

Warp Coils Seem Closer To Reality Than A Battery With Energy Density Of Gasoline
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Researchers from the Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS) and Stanford scientist worked separately on creating a new type of liquid flow battery. The goal was to develop an electrolyte that is not porous, toxic, or flammable (as in Lithium-Ion batteries).

Harward researches created a battery that stores energy in molecules submerged in water.

This kind of battery does not require any fancy material, and you could build it for cheap. Apparently, researchers found a way to keep separate positive and negatively charged electrolyte solutions by changing the molecular structure of them. If this works, batteries like this could achieve a price of $100/1kW. That is one single goal which would make solar energy and wind energy economically viable for storing.

Stanford University researchers managed to do something vaguely similar. By mixing Sodium and Potassium, researchers managed to form a new liquid metal at room temperature. They calculated that "this liquid metal has at least 10 times the available energy per gram as other candidates for the negative-side fluid of a flow battery."

With such a high energy density (which is paramount), the potassium and aluminum oxide membrane, which keeps negative and positive materials separate, had to be quite thick to work at room temperature. When thinner, it could achieve its best performance only at very high temperatures. If the Stanford researchers found a material that would successfully keep the positive and negative side separated but allowed the electron transfer, then we would have a winner. This type of liquid flow battery wouldn’t only be cheaper to produce but also safer, and it would have far greater capacity compared to standard Lithium-Ion batteries today. In fact, if the theory translates into practice, then a kilogram of the cells could have more than 3 MJ of stored energy. Still, nowhere near the amazing energy density of gasoline, but it would be a significant step over lithium-ion batteries. Keep at it guys!

Warp Coils Seem Closer To Reality Than A Battery With Energy Density Of Gasoline
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If these batteries become a viable option, then, the Model 3 Long Range could become much cheaper than before.

The complicated lithium-ion pack could be replaced with something far more palatable.

Li-Oxygen

Warp Coils Seem Closer To Reality Than A Battery With Energy Density Of Gasoline
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The third novel solution are so-called Lithium-Oxygen batteries. Compared to other solutions on the list, the Li-Oxide batteries create energy by a chemical process between the oxygen and lithium ions from the electrolyte. This process produces lithium peroxide and a lot of energy. That is all nice and dandy, but this process delivers only 80-percent of the energy potential as the rest practically becomes a waste. Furthermore, this waste eats up the battery electrolyte and cathode which means that Li-Oxygen battery damages itself with every recharge.

Researchers in Canada found the solution by replacing organic electrolyte for an inorganic molten salt and the carbon-based cathode for a metal cathode. It worked like a charm!

New battery could store 50-percent more energy than before, and the reaction would not produce any waste. The problem?

It only works at 150-degrees Celsius. So, we are still a long way away from room temperature.

If installed in a Tesla Model 3 Long Range, this battery would provide an incredible driving range. See, the energy density of the Lithium-Air cells is, theoretically, dramatically higher compared to the energy density of Lithium-Ion batteries. A kilogram is enough for an energy density of 9 MJ. The main challenges, however, remain the cathode decay and stability.

Sodium-Ion

Warp Coils Seem Closer To Reality Than A Battery With Energy Density Of Gasoline
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I feel that Sodium-Ion batteries are one of the promising battery technologies of the future. See, Sodium is abundant in the earth’s crus and; we have it in the sea water as well. It is much cheaper to extract and prepare for use.

Replacing Lithium with Sodium could be the best way to go. Not only is it easier to use for the creation of the batteries, but Sodium can provide much faster charging times due to unique characteristics of its crystals.

Actually, the project of creating a Sodium-Ion battery is well underway, and it is well funded. Researchers and scientists in Japan currently work to find viable materials that would be able to support the creation of Sodium-Ion batteries. Due to the differences at a molecular level, the Ion size of the Sodium-Ion battery is far bigger compared to the size of the Lithium-Ion ion. If the Japanese find the solution, it could mark a considerable change in perception toward car batteries. The material known as Na2V3O7 (that is its chemical name) could be a solution for the recharging problems.

"Our aim was to tackle the biggest hurdle that large-scale batteries face in applications such as electric cars that heavily rely on long charge durations. We approached the issue via a search that would yield materials efficient enough to increase a battery’s rate performance".

Warp Coils Seem Closer To Reality Than A Battery With Energy Density Of Gasoline
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If this battery finds its way to the market and in the Tesla Model 3 Long Range (somehow), you would be able to recharge even quicker. You would have to use some new kind of charger.

Conclusion

2019 Chevrolet Bolt Exclusive Photos High Resolution
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Clearly, battery advancement has a lot more challenges to deal with. Right now, it seems that manufacturers push for the creation of the solid-state Lithium-Ion battery that would increase the energy density, dramatically improve the safety, lower the weight, and be more stable compared to standard Li-Ion cells. No more Samsung Note7 moments then.

The thing is that each and every new battery technology stagnates without the creation of some new material. It is not the problem with the existence of that material, but it is a problem to find a material that is easy to work with, that is safe, that is abundant, and cheap.

Each battery technology I noted in this article, do lack that one ingredient. It's like a flour of batteries.

And we are yet to cultivate it.
I could continue with the article and mention Lithium-Sulphur batteries, graphene-based batteries, Innolith, and many others, but the thing is that every technology waits for a single (at least) breakthrough. In my opinion, Solid-State batteries are the best bet yet for an evolution that could change electric cars to the better.

For now, our hybrids and electric cars work nicely on Nickel Metal hydride or Lithium-Ion batteries. Definitely better than Lead-Acid batteries of the past.

What do you think?
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