An Old Head Brings New Battery Technology to Life

Ally Winning, European Editor, PSD



One of the key challenges in the power industry at the moment is energy storage. Whether that storage is required for large scale renewable power or for tiny IoT sensor clusters, batteries are the main technology used for storage. Although the technologies and manufacturing processes used for batteries have improved immensely in recent years, customers are always demanding higher capacities, safer technologies, quicker charging and longer lifecycles. As such, rewards are high and innovative companies and research institutes are scrambling to find the Holy Grail of a new chemistry or material that will provide all of these benefits.

We’ve talked about batteries technology before, both in this column and in the magazine's general articles, and many of the technologies that offered great promise have not made it to commercial success, so far anyway. The latest piece of news in the battery area is interesting, not only for the promise it shows, but also because of its backstory. Almost four decades ago, John Goodenough identified and developed LixCoO2 as the cathode material of choice for the Li-ion rechargeable battery while head of the Inorganic Chemistry Laboratory at University of Oxford. Li-ion technology was then commercialised by Sony, giving rise to the lightweight rechargeable batteries that helped the mobile phone to become part of our daily lives.

Now at the age of 94, Goodenough is back as part of a team from the University of Texas at Austin with a new technology that could have the potential to solve the drawbacks from his original creation. In a paper entitled, “Alternative strategy for a safe rechargeable battery” published in this month’s Energy & Environmental Science journal, Goodenough and his team detail a method of developing an all-solid-state battery cell that could lead to safer, faster-charging, longer-lasting rechargeable batteries. The UT team includes senior research fellow Maria Helena Braga, who pioneered the development of glass electrolytes while at the University of Porto in Portugal.

The technology, which has three times the energy density of Li-ion batteries, is based around a solid-state glass electrolyte that allows the use of an alkali-metal anode without the formation of dendrites, which can cause fires or explosions in liquid electrolytes. Lithium, sodium or potassium can be used as the alkali-metal anode, leading to a higher cathode energy density and delivering a longer cycle life. As the solid-glass electrolytes have high conductivity at -20 degrees Celsius, they could be ideal for applications such as car batteries. As if the technical specifications weren’t enough, the new technology allows simplified battery cell fabrication and the cells can be made from earth-friendly materials.

It would be a huge coincidence if the person who played a large part in the mobile phone revolution 40 years ago, gave life to the next generation of IoT devices, viable electric vehicles and improved static storage for renewables.