How Future Batteries Could Save Civilization
By Dan Wellers, Michael Rander | 6 min read
The future of humanity may well depend on our ability to move away from our dirty and dwindling supply of fossil fuels as fast as possible. To steer ourselves and our planet in the right direction, we have to find another way to feed our civilization’s need for a reliable supply of energy.
Nuclear power may well be part of the solution for the near term, but the need to manage depleted radioactive fuel for centuries makes nuclear energy as environmentally problematic as the fossil fuels it replaces. At best, we should only consider it a bridge to more sustainable forms of power.
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Fortunately for the human race, renewable energy is finally becoming competitive. To make it truly transformative, though, we also need to reinvent a technology most of us take for granted: the battery.
Scientists, industry players in industries ranging from utilities and energy to automotive, and venture capitalists are investing billions in a quest to quench our unending demand for electric power for everything from the gadgets in our pockets to the vehicles on our roads. There are a number of impressive advances underway involving things as far apart as carbon nanotubes to electric charges harnessed from compost piles. But there remain many challenges to mass-produce the cheap, renewable, zero-carbon batteries the world craves.
Saving power for later
Utility companies are responsible for delivering power at all hours, under all conditions. That’s the central challenge in building a grid powered by renewable energy: you can’t generate wind power on a still day or solar power on a cloudy one, and you can’t tweak the weather to boost power production during times of peak demand. To ensure we continue to have abundant, consistent electricity in a post-fossil fuel age, we need grid-scale ways to store hydroelectric, solar, and wind power for later use and move it to where it’s needed.
The most common rechargeable batteries in use today are lithium ion (Li-ion). Li-ion batteries can pack a lot of energy into a small, lightweight package that charges quickly, retains a charge for a long time, and can be recharged many times before wearing out. The 2019 Nobel Prize for Chemistry recognized three scientists who developed the technology in the 1970s that now powers millions of smartphones and other gadgets. They are even being used to store energy in the power grid. Yet the challenge of replacing conventional energy sources like oil and gas with batteries is one reason battery research and development attracted nearly US$2 billion in venture capital in 2019.
The next generation of energy storage seems to be on the verge of breaking out. Keep an eye on these technologies currently in development:
- Batteries made of graphene – a one-atom-thick layer of graphite that conducts energy faster and more efficiently than any other material on earth. Graphene batteries charge and discharge dozens of times faster than standard Li-ion batteries, can be charged to full in less time, and store an enormous amount of power for their size. At least one company is working to produce graphene batteries for use in electric cars to give the vehicles a driving range of up to 500 miles on one charge.
- A battery made from cheap, plentiful sodium needs to be much bigger than an Li-ion battery to hold the same charge. That makes sodium batteries impractical for portable devices but ideal for homes, office buildings, or the grid itself. In fact, an Australian company plans to implement sodium-ion batteries for energy storage this year.
- A lithium-sulfur (Li-S) battery could store two to three times as much power in the same space as an Li-ion battery, or the same amount of power in half to one-third the size. So far, though, Li-S batteries don’t last long, so researchers say there is still a long way to go for a commercial version.
- Lithium combined with air could store twice as much power as an Li-ion battery of the same size (or the same amount of power in a battery half the size). Like Li-S batteries, though, Li-air batteries have a longevity problem that researchers are still working to solve.
- Solid-state batteries developed by Toyota scientists can completely charge or discharge in just eight minutes and, because they do not contain liquid as other batteries do, should continue working in temperatures from boiling to well below freezing. The company has said it expects to begin mass production of solid-state batteries around 2025.
Other possibilities at early stages of development include batteries made with a fire-retardant solid polymer; batteries that are 3D-printed from copper foam; lightweight, long-lasting, miniaturized, solid-oxide fuel cells; and gold nanowires that can be recharged 200,000 times with no loss of capacity. Scientists also have figured out that they can use the waste products in compost to generate power in “microbial fuel cells.”
Researchers in the UK have even used nanogenerators to build a phone that charges its own batteries using ambient sound – including the voice of the person talking into the phone. And in a development that could redefine how we think about energy storage, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology is working with Italian sports car manufacturer Lamborghini to build an electric “supercar” that doesn’t even have a battery in the conventional sense – because it can store energy in its body panels, which are made of lightweight carbon nanotubes.
Getting charged up about batteries’ potential
Businesses and governments alike are finally recognizing the potential of being able to store power at grid scale and investing accordingly. Automotive manufacturers are setting up divisions to leverage their existing investments in electric cars into energy storage solutions for the residential and commercial market. Airplane manufacturers are experimenting with lightweight, battery-driven propulsion systems. Governments worldwide are rolling out subsidies to encourage cost-saving, industry-disrupting battery innovations. For example, a South Australia project that, in 2017, built the world’s biggest Li-ion battery installation to store wind energy power using technology from Elon Musk’s Tesla and French renewable energy company Neoen announced in late 2019 that it was expanding from 100 to 150 megawatts.
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The battery revolution isn’t merely about charging your phone just once a week or driving your electric car 1,000 miles without plugging in. It’s about enabling a society-wide transformation with massive ramifications. Developing better ways to store energy will create new job opportunities, not just at battery manufacturers but across the economy as we retool and build out an infrastructure that relies on renewable energy sources. Less expensive, more environmentally friendly sources of power will play a vital role in the growth of circular business models that recapture and reuse resources. The power grid will have the decentralized reserves of power it needs to remain resilient even as it increases its reliance on renewable sources.
Scientists say the effects of human-made climate change are accelerating as we near a tipping point that tumbles us into an extremely unpleasant future – so we need to make the transition to a sustainable, post-fossil fuel world as quickly as possible. By allowing us to use power more efficiently and store it more effectively, the next generation of batteries will do more than just help smooth the inevitable turbulence of that societal shift. The energy storage systems we develop today may actually contain the future of civilization.
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