Battery of The Future: What’s In The Works?

For years, the most viable rechargeable battery technology in use for portable devices has been based on a lithium-ion (li-ion) positive electrode. For most hand-held devices, lithium cobalt oxide has been the go-to product. Mobile technology has been exploding at an impressive rate, but all in all, its innovation is being dragged down by the little chemical boxes we use to power these monster devices. Despite efforts to make them more energy-efficient, smartphones are becoming more problematic in terms of battery use. The question is: What are we going to do about it, and how can we create a new battery that will power these devices for as many days as the faithful Nokia 3310?

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It is exceedingly difficult to get out of our dependency on lithium. Although it’s quite rare in the universe, it’s one of the most common and stable battery materials we can use. Right now, lithium-ion is failing us because we’ve practically reached the limits of what it can provide for high-power devices. We can either make the systems running on these devices (including the chip sets) more efficient or find a new way to power them that could support a longer life. There’s already a ton of focus in energy efficiency by SoC and chip set manufacturers. What we need now is a little cooperation from the folks making these devices’ batteries.

There’s a lot of hype revolving around lithium-sulfur batteries because of their high energy density. However, this component is liquid. Is it wise to store a liquid in high pressure next to a bunch of electronics? The other caveat in this technology is that lithium-sulfur batteries require an extensive amount of monitoring, which might involve extra hardware on the platforms powered by these cells. So, if this technology becomes viable, expect to see fatter portable devices like we did back in the early 2000s.

Then there’s the pipe dream of using lithium-oxygen batteries to power everything from cars to phones. If this technology flies in the next five years, we might even be able to power full-blown desktop computers for a few hours. Smartphones would last about five to seven days without charging. The caveat here is in stability. Lithium-oxygen (better known as Li-air) has potential contamination issues at the cathode. Despite all of the advantages (such as an energy density comparable to petrol), its disadvantages have to be worked out for li-air to become a commercially-available battery. Current experimentation is limited to the laboratory and prototypes are being developed only for powering vehicles.

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What if we were to say goodbye to lithium entirely? There are cheaper, albeit less potent, alternatives to our lithium-based friends that could provide a much better energy base.

What about sodium-air batteries? Paper after paper is showing that the electrolyte breaks down after charging them about eight times. That’s not good, is it? However, that’s practically the same issue with many other metal-air mixtures. Does this mean that the electronics market is doomed to stick to lithium-ion? I don’t think so. Although battery innovation has been sluggish as of late, it’s still an ongoing trial-and-error process that will eventually yield results. There’s a lot of potential in each technology, if only we could move past their caveats.

What are your thoughts? Please leave a comment below if you feel you could add something to this!

7 comments

  1. Batteries are hard. It’s a mistake to blithely think “Oh, the techies will figure out something to get us out of this bind.” And of course, the supply of lithium is limited (Did you know there is apparently a lot of it in the ground in Afghanistan. Does that suggest anything to you?)

    On the “demand side” of the equation, semiconductor technology is nowhere near the theoretical lower limit on the power required to do computation. Perhaps new chip substrates like diamond or graphene will enable current batteries to last a lot longer. And last I heard, we have plenty of carbon.

  2. ..i know of at least 2 companies that are developing a better battery solution.. when I say a better solution, it means higher battery energy density ( as in longer time of use..) and lower cost to manufacture.. the first is an Israel company called Storedot.. which uses a bio-organic molecular material with nanodot technology that replaces the lithium as its core chemistry.. the beauty of their solution is that its bio-organic.. this means that the raw material is not mined, unlike in lithium, and can be from plants.. in their demo video, they were able to fully charge a cellphone size battery in around 30 seconds.. the other company is a Japanese company called power japan plus.. their technology uses the Ryden dual carbon technology with bio-organic electrolyte as the conducting fluid.. both technology provides for a higher energy density battery with faster, up to 20x faster, charging cycles.. & since they are mostly bio-organic, their manuf cost is lower than a comparable lithium-based battery.. would not be surprised if one of the big industry movers acquires them this year…

    • Thanks for the info! Just looked into both those companies and the technology seems extremely promising.

    • I’d wait for an MVP with commercial applications first, then get excited. For the moment, there are lots of projects holding lots of promise. However, we need to consider their ability to meet the global demand for batteries. I am hopeful that we will come to a conclusion about the “next” battery. What I ultimately think will happen is that there will be tons of “next” batteries on the market, each contributing something to the global electronics scene.

  3. The Lithium gives one electron for 7 atomic weight. Currently we use Metal Oxides for the other side of the equation, to absorb an electron (required by battery) weighing 97. Oxygen would weigh 8 per electron. Iron Phosphates which seem to be the safest cathodes weigh ~150. Although light metal anodes react irreversibly with Oxygen, Hydrogen electrodes do not have that issue. The Raney type alloy used in Metal-Hydride batteries to store Hydrogen and act as electrode could be further lightened by using Raney alloys of Titanium rather than Nickel in NiMH type batteries.
    And Batteries are not carbon neutral because 50% of our electricity comes from Coal burning plants, and half of that electricity is lost in the aging transmission infrastructure. For cars this means emitting more carbon for electric vehicles than a gasoline engine.
    High power Natural Gas fuel cells are popular in Japan and Industrially and run on LNG and Air.

    • I’m not necessarily a fan of any nickel-based batteries, given that they have a bad rep with charge “memory” issues and premature alloy degradation.

      I’ve read up on NiZn (what you are calling NiZen), and it seems as if though they might be very viable. The problem is that they don’t provide a nominal voltage that would sufficiently power devices like phones and tablets over a long period of time. You would have to constantly worry about over-amping the battery, which will damage it. Of course, you could run multiple cells in series and solve that problem. Who knows? Maybe we can start a discussion of whether this is the battery of the future?

      I mean, Zinc is very cheap and abundant. We can definitely depend on it to fuel our electronics in the future (or even now).

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