Drive for innovation: Electric vehicles are a major target for R&D on novel battery materials. (Image courtesy: imec)

Topics: Battery, Chemical Physics, Green Tech

The batteries we depend on for our mobile phones and computers are based on a technology that is more than a quarter-century old. Rechargeable lithium-ion (Li-ion) batteries were first introduced in 1991, and their appearance heralded a revolution in consumer electronics. From then on, we could pack enough energy in a small volume to start engineering a whole panoply of portable electronic devices – devices that have given us much more flexibility and comfort in our lives and jobs.

In recent years, Li-ion batteries have also become a staple solution in efforts to solve the interlinked conundrums of climate change and renewable energy. Increasingly, they are being used to power electric vehicles and as the principal components of home-based devices that store energy generated from renewable sources, helping to balance an increasingly diverse and smart electrical grid. The technology has improved too: over the past two and a half decades, battery experts have succeeded in making Li-ion batteries 5–10% more efficient each year, just by further optimizing the existing architecture.

Ultimately, though, getting from where we are now to a truly carbon-free economy will require better-performing batteries than today’s (or even tomorrow’s) Li-ion technology can deliver. In electric vehicles, for example, a key consideration is for batteries to be as small and lightweight as possible. Achieving that goal calls for energy densities that are much higher than the 300 Wh/kg and 800 Wh/L which are seen as the practical limits for today’s Li-ion technology. Another issue holding back the adoption of electric vehicles is cost, which is currently still around 300–200 $/kWh, although that is widely projected to go below 100 $/kWh by 2025 or even earlier. The time required to recharge a battery pack – still in the range of a few hours – will also have to come down, and as batteries move into economically critical applications such as grid storage and grid balancing, very long lifetimes (a decade or more) will become a key consideration too.

There is still some room left to improve existing Li-ion technology, but not enough to meet future requirements. Instead, the process of battery innovation needs a step change: materials-science breakthroughs, new electrode chemistries and architectures that have much higher energy densities, new electrolytes that can deliver the necessary high conductivity – all in a battery that remains safe and is long-lasting as well as economical and sustainable to produce.

Beyond the lithium-ion battery, Jan Provoost, imec/Physics World

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