The Li-Ion Holy Grail


Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Professor Gerbrand Ceder and graduate student Byoungwoo Kang have published details of their battery breakthrough in Nature, and more than a few business executives are paying attention. Lithium batteries are known for their power, but they’ve always been slow to charge and discharge, and that has been the technology’s Achilles heel.
To better understand the recharging process, the researchers began by using powerful computers to simulate the movements of ions and electrons in lithium iron phosphate – a battery solution – and discovered that lithium ions aren’t the sluggards that scientists expected. The problem is that there’s many a slip between the cup and the lip, and lithium ions can only pass through tunnels to the active electrode material when they’re perfectly positioned. In the absence of a few good traffic cops, it’s pandemonium. The solution, Ceder discovered, is to engineer the material with a so-called beltway system that guides the ions towards the tunnel entrances at an ideal angle.

Ceder’s discovery sounds like the real deal, and it could bring enormous benefits: smaller, faster charging li-ion batteries that hold their energy far longer than today’s offerings. But here’s the kicker: because only slight modifications to li-ion manufacturing process are required, Professor Ceder is confident that the new battery material could be on the market within two or three years.
If so, it could change the dynamics of the transportation industry, and usher in a wonderful era of plug-in hybrids, like the Chevy Volt and Fisker Karma, and true EVs made by companies like Think and Renault-Nissan. Who wouldn’t appreciate the value of zero-emission travel when you can recharge your EV for another 100 miles with a five-minute pit stop?
But a new lithium-battery revolution could be even more important for the renewable energy and power utility sectors. Battery-powered vehicles will be crucial to American utilities because they can work as mobile energy storage centers that smooth a potentially-bumpy renewable supply. Millions of these cars and trucks will eventually work in tandem with power companies through vehicle-to-grid (V2G) technology, providing energy to the grid when demand is high, and recharging overnight when power generators have excess capacity, but nowhere to put it. Since electricity supply from renewable sources fluctuates by its very nature, PHEVs and EVs will make it easier to plug those power sources into the grid, heralding a era of clean energy.
Making a good new story even better, Americans who switch to PHEVs or EVS can cut their annual gasoline bill between 50 and 80 percent, depending on the cost of oil. Oil money that once went to OPEC – and Canada – will now stay in the United States, and put Americans back to work at green jobs that can’t be transfered overseas.
Who would have thought that the humble battery could have such a promising future?

Richard is a writer and editor based in Halifax, Nova Scotia who specializes in clean technology and climate change. He's the founder of One Blue Marble, a climate change activism blog and web site.

2 responses

Leave a Reply