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Energy Storage Innovations May Finally Bring About the ‘Holy Grail’ of Batteries
SEP 29, 2016 15:53 PM
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Energy Storage Innovations May Finally Bring About the ‘Holy Grail’ of Batteries

By  Dr Lorenzo Grande

The future of the energy, mobility, electronics, and communications industry will be strongly shaped by the development of one key enabling technology, that is, energy storage. At the historical tipping point of structural change in these sectors there has never been a better time for a dedicated forum on energy storage as key enabling technology.

Why now? In 2016, Li-ion batteries (LIB) celebrated their silver jubilee, i.e. they have been on the market, virtually unchanged, for the last 25 years. While this anniversary marks and underscores their worldwide success and diffusion in consumer electronics devices and, more recently, electric vehicles, the underlying technology begins to show its limitations in terms of safety, performance, form factor, and cost.

The current battle for the leadership of Li-ion manufacturing between Europe, the US, and Asia is currently being dominated by the latter, with Japan and South Korea at the forefront of technology development and China as both the main producer and the owner of several strategic raw materials (e.g. graphite and rare earth metals for EV motors). Whichever country will capture the value of solid-state batteries, will also have the leadership in the post-Li-ion era.

The search for a “Holy Grail” of batteries is stronger than ever, with public and military bodies in the US and Europe funding both basic and applied research, while Asian companies (Japan and South Korea) have the lion’s share in intellectual property (IP) and manufacturing capability, as well as stakes in some of the most dynamic battery start-ups.

Solid-state batteries have the potential to unhinge this equilibrium and lead to a new era of battery manufacturing. At the core of this technology lies the replacement of the conventional organic carbonate electrolyte + polyolefin separator with a ceramic or polymeric material, that has the capability of both physically separating the anode from the cathode and of conducting lithium ions. While research on this topic has covered the span of several decades and the first example of primary Li-ion battery was in fact a solid-state battery (the lithium iodine battery used in pacemakers), this class of electrolytes has always lacked the high power capabilities that its liquid counterpart could provide. In recent years, several noteworthy discoveries have been made, including this year’s discovery of a solid-state electrolyte based on sulphur and chlorine that has a higher conductivity than LP30, the conventional liquid mixture employed in state-of-the-art Li-ion cells.

Solid-state ionic conductors can be divided into inorganic and organic (i.e. polymer) electrolytes. Inorganic electrolytes benefit from high thermal tolerance, a transport number corresponding to unity, no leakage in case of cell rupture, as well as the possibility to prevent internal short circuits. Additionally, solid-state electrolytes enable the fabrication of Li-ion cells with a bipolar plate design, which can result in a significant increase in volumetric energy density. Many large companies and dynamic start-ups are working on how to harness these strengths and limit some potential issues like interfacial stability and ease of scale-up, with the ultimate goal of using solid-state batteries in the EV sector. Polymer-based electrolytes, on the other hand, are a more mature technology that has already entered the market, but which also faces some exciting innovation thanks to new materials being developed.

This November, for instance, at Energy Storage Innovations USA 2016, attendees  will have an opportunity to see an extensive array of companies working on solid-state and polymer batteries that will present their latest developments on products and technologies for many disparate applications, from drones (Solidenergy), to the Internet of Things (Ilika), to military applications (Polyplus) to electric vehicles (Solid Power).

Solidenergy is a Boston-based start-up that has spun out of MIT. The company has developed an “anodeless” lithium metal battery that contains a quasi-ionic liquid electrolyte and an anode protective layer instead of the conventional separator + liquid electrolyte combination. This combination allows for an increase in energy density as well as added safety. Now about to launch their battery technology in drones, Solidenergy also wants to enter other markets like consumer electronics and ultimately electric vehicles and thus make their technology ubiquitous. With strong partners like A123 Systems, Solidenergy has learned from their failure and has recently moved to a new facility to start small-scale production.

Ilika is the poster child of thin film battery technology. Created from an idea developed at the University of Southampton, they have developed high throughput techniques to accelerate the development of new materials for energy and electronic applications. The company has collaborated with Toyota Motors in the development of solid-state batteries and share intellectual property, however Ilika has also developed its own solid-state battery for wireless sensor networks, energy harvesting and wearable electronics.

Polyplus, a US company led by Dr. Steve Visco, started doing research on solid-state batteries in the 90’s and is now reaping its first achievements thanks to the deployment of its lithium-seawater battery in submarines used by the US Navy. The firm also recently reported the development of a new type of solid electrolyte that is easy to scale unlike most solid-state electrolytes, and which can deliver significant improvements in both safety and performance.

Solid Power, based in Boulder, CO, has the ambitious target of deploying its all-solid-state batteries in electric vehicles. The company is working on a 350 Wh/kg (750 Wh/L) battery that can operate at room temperature, but is actively targeting the aerospace, military, and oil and gas sectors too. Their material can be processed in a dry room with standard roll-to-roll, slurry based manufacturing equipment. With strong competitors from the automotive sector, the company-s high risk, high gain bet can potentially disrupt the electric mobility sector by finally unleashing long range electric vehicles at an affordable price.

More information on energy storage-related topics will be covered at the IDTechEx Show! on Nov. 16-17 in Santa Clara, Calif. 

About the Author:

Lorenzo Grande holds a PhD magna cum laude in Physical Chemistry from the University of Münster in Germany, which he carried out at the MEET Battery Research Centre and at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology. During his doctoral studies, he focused on advanced anodes and electrolytes for post-lithium-ion batteries, as well as thermal sensors for Li-ion batteries.   Prior to that, he obtained his MPhil in Micro- and Nanotechnology Enterprise from the University of Cambridge and his BSc in Industrial Chemistry from the University of Rome. He has worked on graphene-based materials at the Nokia Research Centre in Cambridge (UK) and has been a visiting scholar at the University of Aveiro in Portugal and at the Italian National Agency for New Technologies and Energy in Rome.

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