Rechargeable lithium-ion batteries have been a main driver of the clean power revolution, especially in the fields of electric vehicles and storage for wind and solar energy. The clean power trend could rev up even faster, if a new energy storage technology under development at the University of Texas, Austin, finds its way to the marketplace.
The so-called "glass battery" research does not have the benefit of federal or state funding, so the next phase of development is going to require a helpful nudge from private-sector investors.
The new research project is due in part to the work of John Goodenough of UT's Cockrell School of Engineering. As a co-inventor of lithium-ion technology, Goodenough is a legend in the energy storage field.
It would be an ironic twist of fate if the new technology eventually supplants Li-ion in the marketplace, but that doesn't seem to bother Goodenough.
Even a game-changing invention like lithium-ion energy storage still has room for improvement. Here's Goodenough throwing shade, as cited by the UT news office:
“Cost, safety, energy density, rates of charge and discharge and cycle life are critical for battery-driven cars to be more widely adopted. We believe our discovery solves many of the problems that are inherent in today’s batteries,” Goodenough said.
Goodenough worked with research fellow Maria Helena Braga to develop the new battery.
The problem that the new battery solves is related to the formation of dendrites. These are the tiny metal whiskers that can form when a conventional lithium-ion battery is charged too quickly. Dendrites have been linked to shorter battery lifespan, fires or even explosions.
To prevent dendrites from forming, Goodenough and Braga replaced the liquid electrolyte in a conventional lithium-ion battery with glass.
That switch-up enabled researchers to use a new anode (that's the negative) that is not susceptible to dendrites.
When the team put their battery to the test, the result was a longer lifespan.
The new battery also had greater energy than a conventional lithium-ion battery, meaning an electric vehicle with a "glass battery" would charge more quickly and go more miles than one with an ordinary lithium-ion battery.
In another key improvement, Goodenough and Braga anticipate that the battery could operate efficiently in subzero temperatures.
Performance improvements are just one aspect of the new energy storage technology.
In commercial production, the glass battery would be less complicated and expensive to manufacture than conventional lithium-ion batteries.
In fact, the battery could be made with sodium instead of lithium.
Braga points out that sodium -- aka salt -- is an abundant resource that could be extracted from seawater.
A new market for sodium could turn out to be a significant development for desalination operations. Even with the advent of low cost renewable energy, desalination is expensive. The bottom line would benefit if operators could partly offset costs by marketing recovered sodium to EV battery manufacturers.
The availability of an abundant domestic resource in the EV supply chain is also an important consideration for national security planners. The U.S. has only one functioning lithium operation.
So far, the research has not garnered federal grant money, but UT-Austin does have a technology transfer program that hooks up academic research with investors for commercial development, so stay tuned for that.
In consideration of the anxiety and upheaval resulting from the Donald Trump administration's travel and immigration policies, it's worth noting that the new energy storage breakthrough was made possible by scientific collaboration across international borders.
Braga first began working on glass electrolytes with a research team at the University of Porto in Portugal.
Here's a snippet from her bio that demonstrates the skill set she brought to UT-Austin:
"Her main interests include experimental characterization and computational modeling of materials' properties, namely batteries' materials and metal hydrides.
"The experimental techniques include synthesis and characterization by means of neutron and x-ray scattering (spectroscopy and diffraction), performing Rietveld refinement and pair distribution function (PDF) and other characterization techniques like ionic and electrical conductivity measurements, differential scanning calorimetry (DSC), scanning electron microscopy (SEM), electron probe microanalysis (EPMA), etc."
Braga's collaboration with Goodenough began about two years ago. She credits him with foundational insights leading to a patent for the new battery.
Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes. She is currently Deputy Director of Public Information for the County of Union, New Jersey. Views expressed here are her own and do not necessarily reflect agency policy.