THE SOLID TRUTH
Li ion batteries have captured the imaginations of the battery industry worldwide. The success of the technology has been truly amazing as improvements are announced regularly. I am certain that Sony, the lithium ion inventor company and others closely involved at the time, such as myself, never anticipated the potential of the system. The battery isn’t problem free. The most significant difficulty is battery safety, but the industry is growing so rapidly, that even if that becomes a major road block, there will be ways devised to overcome it. After all we have to protect the technology that lays the golden eggs.
There is a constant, search for improvement. The lithium ion solid electrolyte battery, i.e. one in which the liquid electrolyte of a battery is replaced by a conductive solid material, is a strong candidate to fill that need. The search for a good solid electrolyte battery is not new. It has been a long sought, but difficult to accomplish dream that has yet to be completely fulfilled. For example, I remember being asked more than 30 years ago to comment on a “new” sold state battery that was being touted by a startup battery group. Unfortunately, like many similar solid state battery development programs at the time and even now, the effort was unsuccessful. I believe that group is still trying…… unsuccessfully.
Lithium-ion batteries have provided a lightweight energy-storage solution, that has enabled many of today’s high-tech devices, from smartphones to electric cars. Substituting the conventional liquid electrolyte with a solid electrolyte in such batteries can provide significant advantages, such as greater energy storage ability, pound for pound, at the battery pack level. Importantly they may also virtually eliminate the risk of dendrites, tiny projections that grow through the electrolyte layer and lead to short-circuits.
The most recent, exciting solid state battery activity has been reported by a group headed by highly respected 95 year old Prof. John Goodenough and his colleagues at Univ. Texas. Goodenough, an inventor of the lithium ion battery, and his co-workers recently published a paper, which presents a battery in which the liquid electrolyte has been replaced with a non-flammable glass electrolyte and the lithium with sodium, the latter a much less costly material than lithium
Goodenough has said that “Cost, safety, energy density, rates of charge and discharge and cycle life are critical for battery-driven cars to be more widely adopted.” He believes, that his new system solves many of the problems that are inherent in today’s batteries.”
Has Prof. Goodenough found the magic solution to the problems inherent in solid electrolyte battery development? Possibly, but we’ll probably have to wait a while to find out, since there appears to be common agreement among battery people, that it will likely take 10-15 years, to develop this new technology. Of course it took years for lithium ion to come to fruition, but if this newest effort is successful, it will further support the general feeling that Goodenough is a genius.
There have been other recent headline grabbing important solid electrolyte activities in the industry. In a previous issue of this magazine I discussed the sale of the rights to the widely publicized Sakti 3, solid battery development to Dyson, the well-known and highly successful vacuum cleaner manufacturer. Dyson has invested sizeable money to the Sakti 3 project. His purchase surprised the battery industry, especially at the rumored price for Sakti3 of more than $90million. Wow. The major question that has been pondered by all the experts, since the acquisition is why such a large expenditure for what available public evidence appears to indicate is a questionable technology. Recently Dyson announced, that several of the many patents included in the Sakti3 deal have been abandoned. It is strange that he voluntarily publicized that information without any further specifics or explanation. It appears though, that the Dyson effort is continuing.
We can be assured that the huge investments automakers have already made in Li-ion (e.g. Tesla Motors $5 billion with their Giga factory and recent announcements of major European and Asian groups doing likewise. We can anticipate, that there will be a constant effort in the development of new systems capable of dominating the EV business. That conclusion is already demonstrated by the continued steady growth of new lithium EV battery makers worldwide.
Progress with the EV and other new lithium ion battery applications depends upon the advances made in the battery technology in general. Multi millions of dollars are being spent in the competitive race to be the leader in the field. Tesla, with the assistance of Panasonic, is off to a fast start, but the daily worldwide announcements from the U.S, Europe, China, Korea, China, India and other countries will lead to a wide variety of significant improvements. We can be reassured that the battery powered EV is here to stay and that the battery developers will be hard pressed to keep up with demands of the EV for even better batteries.
There’s an interesting and exciting ride ahead for the industry as companies all over the world attempt to capitalize on present and anticipated battery developments. If you follow the daily announcements about lithium ion batteries, and there are many, you have to be impressed to see the technology being spread all over the world. Of course there is occasional concern about the long term supply of lithium, but that’s quite a time away. A major recycling effort can help ameliorate that problem, if necessary.
The lithium ion battery business will continue to expand even beyond the EV business with other important new applications. The Goodenoughs in the world will continue their search for better batteries. As a result the best may be yet to come.
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