After years of very slow, frustrating improvements, we might finally be on the verge of some real changes in battery tech. It’s about time. What’s driving it? It’s the electric car.
Batteries have been slow to change.
Let’s look at the last 25 years. Computing power has increased about 100x. Miniaturization has gotten ridiculous — a 512GB memory card is the size of your pinky nail where it would have taken ten full size hard drives to store that much in the 1990s. A computer used to be a big beige box, and now it’s a pocketable phone.
And through all of this, batteries haven’t kept up. We’ve gone from mostly nickel-metal-hydride (NiMH) batteries to lithium-ion (Li-ion) cells, and there’s been about a 20% increase in energy density. That’s practically nothing. The biggest advances in batteries in the last 25 years have been in heat management, creating batteries that can take a massive amount of power and deal with the excess heat instead of exploding (usually.)
The real change in power management has come from computer chips that are a lot more efficient than they used to be. If they weren’t, we wouldn’t have our phones at all, or they’d be the size of milk crates because of the batteries we’d need for them.
Let’s imagine that battery technology had advanced as fast as computing or storage technology. You’d be able to power a Tesla with something the size of a 9 volt battery, and you’d be able to charge it with solar on the roof of the car. If only.
We might finally be seeing some progress.
I’ve been telling you about the slow pace of change in battery tech for a long time. Back in 2013, I told you about a promising technology that unfortunately didn’t materialize. It could be coming back, this time to stay.
The miracle material graphene is nothing more than a specialized form of carbon, the same stuff that makes up everything from pencils to diamonds. Bloomberg tells us that while you can’t use graphene for batteries yet, you can use it to create a very stable ball-shaped battery that could withstand faster charging and hold about 45% more energy in the same space. That’s definitely great news for things like electric cars, although it’s hard to imagine how that would work in a phone. It could end up being a very interesting looking phone, let’s put it that way.
Even more promise ahead
There’s another technology that could be getting closer. For almost 75 years, researchers have been trying to create solid-state batteries. If you’ve ever opened up a battery by accident, you know they are full of toxic goo. This goo can burn your skin, it’s flammable, and it can be made of chemicals like lead and cadmium that are dangerous to the environment if they leak out.
A solid state battery would be completely solid with no goo. Such a battery, if it existed, could hold a lot more energy in a smaller space, it could be charged more quickly, and there would be practically zero chance of it catching fire. If the materials were strong enough, the battery could actually be an integral part of the device it sits inside, meaning there would be less need for a firm outer shell for a phone.
Solid-state batteries are considered the next big step, since lithium-ion technology doesn’t really seem to be going anywhere until we see the graphene ball battery. (If we ever do.) There’s a big push to make them for electric cars which are suddenly in high demand worldwide. Still, every device could benefit from being safer, charging faster and holding more energy.
Will it actually happen this time?
I don’t know. I’ve written about battery tech before, and there have been all sorts of promising technologies that went by the wayside. I remember there was a push to put hydrogen fuel cells in phones. The fuel cell would electrolyze water, create energy from the hydrogen that was freed, and release oxygen into the atmosphere. Presumably they would also press your pants with the steam that would be released. This never happened. I remember people talking about kinetic energy capture, sort of like those watches you don’t have to wind. If your phone battery is low, just put it in your pocket and walk around the block. That didn’t happen.
It’s nice to think that people are trying new things, but times are getting desperate. We need new battery technology, and soon. Hopefully either solid state batteries, graphene balls, or something else is going to come out very soon.