Good today and far better tomorrow

May 22, 2017

Batteries past

From lead acid to Li-ion, over the course of the past 50 years or so, batteries have undergone a remarkable transformation. Back then, we used batteries in limited applications: to start cars, and power our toys, remote controls, and flashlights. Lead acid has long been the choice for gasoline-powered cars, while your typical alkaline batteries did the trick for devices in the home.

Then along came the nickel-based rechargeables: nickel cadmium (NiCd) and the longer lasting nickel-metal hydride (NiMH). These changed the way we worked and lived, charging power tools and early digital cameras. NiMH then made the big leap into transportation in the mid-90s, as the supporting technology for the Toyota Prius. This changed driving technology forever, leading to today’s electric vehicles. However, the density was still lacking for what people wanted in cars, tools, cameras, and other emerging devices.

Lithium ion emerges

So lithium ion (Li-ion) emerged commercially onto the scene (most versions of which contain nickel) in 1991, making its way into early camcorders and eventually into our smartphones, laptops, and other portable devices we use today. Li-ion was also incorporated into the next generation of automobiles, as its superior power density became critical for moving vehicles over long distances.

In a half-century, we have transitioned from a point where batteries were mostly peripheral in our lives, to the point where we have them in our pockets and purses all day long (and some of us literally have them inside us in our pacemakers). One need only look around an airport lounge, with people always on the prowl for power outlets, to see how critical they are to our daily lives.

The near-term future looks good for nickel

As with many technologies, the more we use them, the better we want them to be. Batteries are no exception. We want cellphones and laptops to last for days on a charge. We want electric vehicles to go as far as a car on a tank of gas (and to ‘fill it up’ in less than ten minutes). And increasingly, we want batteries to support our massive and complex electric power grids.

We desire batteries that are lighter, denser, more powerful, and faster to charge. The question now arises, how will we get them?  Will this involve continuous tweaks to existing technologies? Or is there something revolutionary lurking around the next corner, and if so, how long will it take to get it?

Further out the view gets hazy

First, let’s look at the improvements to existing lithium ion chemistry. One trend is the migration towards nickel manganese cobalt cathodes, which offer more energy density and lower costs per energy delivered. There is also a move towards super dense lithium air batteries (Tesla has patents in this area, and other researchers are making considerable progress). At the same time, costs of lithium ion batteries continue to fall considerably as supply chains become more efficient (and China ramps up its massive production capabilities). Many observers see costs falling by as much as 50% over the next several years.

Further out, the view gets hazy: what about the next generation of lithium game-changers? Where will they come from, if at all?  And when might they arrive? One possible candidate is the solid state battery, which is safer, denser (up to twice as much energy in the same space), longer-lasting, and also a lot more expensive at present. These batteries will likely have to find a beachhead in certain devices before they can reach economies of scale that facilitate price reductions. They are probably four or five years away from making their way into your smartphone.

Lithium sulfur is another candidate, owing to its four-fold density advantage over lithium ion and lower cost of materials. Significant technical and safety issues remain to be resolved here, though progress is being made.

The process of battery innovation will accelerate

Long-term, battery technology is all about materials science. It’s about combining various elements on the periodic table to see how they will perform. Today, we are able to investigate chemistries in ways that were impossible a few years ago. High-performance super-computing allows us to perform over a quadrillion calculations per second, to combine various elements into compounds in the virtual world and rapidly see how they may perform. Do they transmit light and electricity? Are they malleable or brittle? Virtual compounds can be turned into actual compounds and tested further in the real world. Researchers now think they can cut the time required to bring a product to market in half.

Better battery technologies

Within five years, super-computers are expected to begin to perform ‘what if’ calculations, bringing more human-like reasoning to the table. As the US Department of Energy notes in a review on research and technology, “a combination of physical theory, advanced computer models, and vast materials properties databases to accelerate the design of a new material with application-specific properties by optimizing composition and processing to develop the desired structure and properties.”

This promises to accelerate the process of bringing new battery technologies to market far more rapidly than today. We are likely to see far better battery technologies within the coming decade, with technologies that are as yet unclear.

In recent decades, nickel has played a key role in supporting our battery-powered lives. And for the foreseeable future, nickel will continue to do so.

Current Issue

Battery technology

Past, present and future use of nickel

May 03, 2017

Vol32-1 - 150*110

Feature Story:
Demand side response and battery storage systems rise to the challenge
The demand for energy is continually increasing; at national levels, within communities and in households. The traditional method of meeting this demand has been to increase production on the supply-side.