Navigant Research Blog

A Better Battery through Better Materials

Ian McClenny — August 6, 2015

Through the past decade, primary and secondary battery technology has boomed across all different kinds of applications. Incrementally improving chemistries compounded with decreasing costs have paved the way for a golden age in energy storage across multiple sectors, and developing technologies that create safer, more efficient means of procuring storage will be imperative to successfully integrating renewables on a global scale.

Business owners, manufacturers, and electrochemical scientists are searching for new battery chemistries that can be engineered to serve a multitude of purposes. Lithium ion (Li-ion) batteries are widely regarded as one of the best chemistries, and Navigant Research forecasts exponential growth in terms of energy capacity and cell shipments in the next decade. Current Li-ion batteries with cobalt boast approximately 4 times the energy of lead-acid, with specific energy densities anywhere between 80 and 220 Wh/kg and cycle life of 1,000 to 5,000. Though they perform better than traditional storage devices, they typically have electrodes that are subject to rapid degradation at elevated temperatures and electrolytes that have low flash points, which can lead to a significant loss in capacity. Li-ion technology performance is dependent on the rate of intercalated lithium between electrodes, but due to growing demands for lighter and more powerful devices, a need for new materials has emerged as the gateway for a better battery.

New Developments

Researchers in South Korea have developed a solid-state Li-ion technology that utilizes a porous solid electrolyte rather than a traditional liquid. It is said to greatly improve performance and reduce risks due to overheating. The solid nature and material structure enables ions to travel more freely between electrodes, helps regulate cell temperature, and negates the need for separators typically found in batteries. Ion transference rates of the solid electrolyte were recorded to be between 0.7 and 0.8 compared to 0.2 and 0.5 of traditional electrolytes, which could translate to a substantial increase in rate of discharge and energy density. This battery then could be used in applications such as load leveling, frequency regulation, and voltage support for utility-scale energy storage systems. The cells also underwent elevated temperature testing (ranging from 25°C-100°C) over a period of 4 days, resulting in little change in ion conductivity and no instances of thermal runaway.

What makes this innovation valuable is its ability to be integrated with existing lithium technologies as well as next-generation advanced batteries. As lithium sulfur and metal-air increase in manufacturing feasibility and decrease in cost over the years, implementing solid-state electrolytes could position new batteries to provide long-term energy and storage solutions to the residential, commercial, utility and transportation sectors. The transportation sector also could benefit from solid-state battery technology. Currently, companies like Volkswagen and General Motors are interested in and actively investing in solid-state batteries, potentially for their next wave of electric vehicles. Both companies have acquired stakes in different U.S. startup battery companies that specialize in these types of batteries in order to achieve longer driving distances from a single charge. Despite the hurdles, developing functional, cheaper materials for advanced batteries seems to be a priority across the board. Doing so successfully could have transcendental effects on renewable energy.

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