Summer battery blowout

There’s been an incredible amount of progress in electrical charge storage over the summer with two huge innovations on a nano-sized scale. Both findings are set to revolutionize the battery market and may even end up redefining the applications of electric power.

The first finding comes from the University of Illinois where a team of researchers led by Prof. Paul Braun developed a new method for discharging batteries.
Now, to fully appreciate the finding it’s useful to recap the limiting factors in traditional batteries. Science NOW offers a wonderfully concise explanation, comparing batteries to their faster, more limited cousins, the capacitors.

Batteries, explains Science NOW, “can store much more energy because they hold their charge inside the bulk of a material, usually an oxide or a phosphate compound located inside the cathode. Unfortunately, because these materials are not good conductors of electric charge, it takes a long time to get the charge in or out of a battery.”

Traditionally, the article explains, adding conductors to the battery to improve the discharge time meant giving up valuable charge-storage battery volume. The team of Illinois scientists solved this problem by building “a tiny metal lattice with so many nooks and crannies that when it’s filled with a charge-storage material, the electrons in the material never have far to go before reaching the metal and being conducted away.”

The result is a battery with a storage capacity increased by “10-20 per cent” and with no foreseeable problems replacing traditional batteries, as they can be built in the same common sizes. Though tests have so far only taken place in a watch-sized battery, Braun says that he has “every reason to believe [they] can scale up.”

One battery innovation would have been exciting enough this summer, but MIT professors W. Craig Carter and Yet-Ming Chang, employing the minds of students Mihai Daduta and Bryan Ho, have also developed a completely new method of storing electric charge.

MIT News writes, “The new battery relies on an innovative architecture called a semi-solid flow cell, in which solid particles are suspended in a carrier liquid and pumped through the system. In this design, the battery’s active components — the positive and negative electrodes, or cathodes and anodes — are composed of particles suspended in a liquid electrolyte.”

The main innovation of the battery “is that it separates the two functions of the battery — storing energy until it is needed, and discharging that energy when it needs to be used — into separate physical structures,” writes MIT News.
The researchers claim that this type of battery could reduce the materials needed in building a battery system and offers a feasible alternative to fossil fuel powered automobiles. “Such a system would permit the possibility of simply ‘refueling’ the battery by pumping out the liquid slurry and pumping in a fresh, fully charged replacement, or by swapping out the tanks like tires at a pit stop, while still preserving the option of simply recharging the existing material when time permits.”

The system can use many different chemicals to make the slurry, and research is currently being conducted into which would best suit current needs. Chang says the goal is to have “a fully functioning, reduced-scale prototype system” within the next few years.

So, there may just be a way out of the fossil fuel dilemma. Of course, these innovations pose their own problems. Chemical waste management comes to mind immediately, but in conjunction with other green energy initiatives may pave the way to a brighter and cleaner future. And the good news for students is that in a few years our handhelds, cell phones and computers will likely allow us to waste even more hours in class every day.