By Irina Slav
Ultrafast charging, the Holy Grail of batteries, has been elusive for years. It is one big reason—perhaps the biggest—why electric cars have not taken off the way they should have and the way many have hoped. But now, an international team of researchers has uncovered the secret to superbatteries: ones not just a lot more energy dense than what we currently have, but also capable of delivering an electric charge much faster than existing batteries.
The secret has to do with how electricity is stored in a group of fascinating materials called transition-metal oxides. These compounds, made up of oxygen bound with iron, nickel, zinc, or another transition metal, can store electricity physically, inside themselves, and they can store a lot of it. That is compared to the dominant lithium-ion technology where lithium ions move from anode to cathode (made from the same materials) or change their crystal structure to turn them into energy storage, the University of Texas at Austin explained in a press release.
“For nearly two decades, the research community has been perplexed by these materials’ anomalously high capacities beyond their theoretical limits,” one of the lead authors of the study, Guihua Yu, said. “This work demonstrates the very first experimental evidence to show the extra charge is stored physically inside these materials via space charge storage mechanism.”
That is pretty good news as many prepare for the electric era where energy storage will be a priority. However, there is still quite a long way to go from discovering how superstorage works to putting this discovery into practice, making much denser batteries. In the meantime, others are also pushing the borders in battery energy density.
Later this month, Tesla’s Elon Musk is expected to announce the latest about the company’s so-called million-mile battery. Tesla’s CEO first talked about the superbattery early last year, saying that the company could soon have batteries lasting for over one million miles. At the time, many probably took it as yet another grand promise with less substance than realism requires. Yet later in 2019, a team of researchers from Dalhousie University in Canada published a paper detailing a battery that “should be able to power an electric vehicle for over 1 million miles.”
Many would argue that nobody needs a battery that can last for 1 million miles or several thousand charge-recharge cycles, but if such a battery is indeed developed, it could be instrumental for energy storage solutions that seek to utilize retired EV batteries instead of dumping them in landfills or setting them aside for recycling. Battery Day, which will also be the day of the annual shareholders’ meeting of Tesla, is scheduled for September 22.
And Tesla is not the only one. Speaking of powering—and storing the excess energy—of the future, flow batteries have also staked a solid claim. They are rechargeable like lithium-ion batteries but can last longer. And their energy density can also be increased as a U.S. energy storage startup recently announced. According to StorEn, the flow battery can store up to 35 percent more electricity than a comparable battery with the same volume, and even more impressively, it can last for 15,000 charge-recharge cycles. The company’s battery is pending a patent.
And there is more, in a perhaps unlikely place: Europe. Europe has been lagging behind the U.S. in both EV and battery technology development, but it seems it is now beginning to catch up. Last year, one EV startup founded by the grandson of Ferdinand Porsche, the founder of Volkswagen, said it had developed a completely new battery that could charge up to 80 percent in four minutes. A recent report confirms the Piech EV battery can charge super-quickly, at 4 minutes and 40 seconds for an 80 percent charge, and a charge can last for 500 km.
Whether for electric vehicles or energy storage to back solar and wind installations, batteries continue to be a hot area of research. No wonder since the competition in the EV space, if not in storage, is getting pretty intense: just this week, GM said it had struck a partnership with Nikola, a startup that many see as a challenger to Tesla’s electric dominance. Under the terms of the deal, GM will supply Nikola with fuel cell, EV battery, and electric drive technology in exchange for an 11-percent stake in the company.
The race for the electric future is on, and more and more people will want a part in it. More advancements in battery technology are not just likely but virtually a certainty. The only question is how many of them would be able to go from the lab to the market quickly enough to make a difference. This would normally depend on their potential to make a serious enough difference. In the heated space of EV and storage, the success of a new battery tech would also depend on the competitive edge it could offer those who decide to utilize it.
By Irina Slav for Oilprice.com