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The search for a better battery

The limitations of 20th-century batteries are holding back technological progress. Is a breakthrough in sight?

hat’s the state-of-the-art battery?
The lithium-ion battery, which powers everything from the cellphone in your pocket to airplane flight systems and electric cars. Li-ion batteries have been used commercially since 1991, and there are more than 1.8 billion of them in use. Their capabilities have helped lead to huge advances in digital technology: They recharge within hours, can keep portable electronics going for days, and yet are small enough to fit inside pocket-size devices. But most Li-ion batteries produce levels of energy too low to power large machines and expire within three years. While a single cell is enough to power an iPhone, airplanes and cars need to be stocked with rows of batteries. Such large arrays can overheat and burst into flame, like the 63-pound battery pack that caused a fire inside a Boeing 787 Dreamliner earlier this year. Many engineers believe the Li-ion battery’s performance has been stretched about as far as it can go. “We need to leapfrog the engineering of making batteries,” said Vince Battaglia, a battery scientist at Lawrence Berkeley National Lab. “We’ve got to find the next big thing.”

What do engineers need a new battery to do?
Recharge more quickly, store more energy, and discharge it for longer. The limitations of our current technology are most apparent in batteries for electric cars, which run out of energy every hundred miles or so and take up to four hours to recharge, yet cost as much as $15,000 each. “The lack of affordable, highly functional batteries has been a particularly high barrier to the widespread adoption of electric cars,” said a 2010 Department of Energy report. But a significant improvement in battery technology would boost more than electric vehicles — it could help sustainable energy overtake nuclear and fossil fuels by allowing the power produced when the wind is blowing and the sun is shining to be stored for times when the wind and sun aren’t cooperating. “If you crack it,” said Jay Whitacre of Carnegie Mellon University, “it’ll change the world.”

What’s the likeliest candidate?
A lithium-air battery is the “best chance battery scientists have to beat gasoline,” said Seth Fletcher, author of Bottled Lightning, a book about lithium technology. An ordinary Li-ion battery contains electrodes of carbon and a lithium compound. A Li-air battery would effectively use atmospheric oxygen as an electrode, rather than pure carbon, providing much more energy intensity. There are still several vexing obstacles to Li-air batteries — not least the fact that pure lithium is explosively reactive with water in the air. IBM is one of several companies trying to build one, but the technology is said to be in its infancy. Other researchers are exploring metallic alternatives to lithium, such as magnesium.


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