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Better batteries charge forward

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Hum    6,933

Everybody wants more power from their batteries. Smartphones and laptops always need recharging. Electric car drivers must carefully plan their routes to avoid being stranded far from a charging station. Anyone who struggles with a tangle of chargers every night would prefer a battery that can last for weeks or months.

 

For researchers who specialize in batteries, though, the drive for a better battery is less about the luxury of an always-charged iPad (though that would be nice) and more about kicking our fossil fuel habit. Given the right battery, smog-belching cars and trucks could be replaced with vehicles that run whisper-quiet on electricity alone. No gasoline engine, no emissions. Even airplanes could go electric. And the power grid could be modernized to use cheaper, greener fuels such as sunlight or wind even on days when the sun doesn’t shine bright enough or the wind doesn’t blow hard enough to meet electricity demand.

 

A better battery has the potential to jolt people into the future, just like the lithium-ion battery did. When they became popular in the early 1990s, lithium-ion batteries offered twice as much energy as the next best alternative. They changed the way people communicate.

 

“What the lithium-ion battery did to personal electronics was transformational,” says materials scientist George Crabtree, director of the Joint Center for Energy Storage Research at Argonne National Laboratory in Illinois. “The cell phone not only made landlines obsolete for many, but [the lithium-ion battery] put cameras and the internet into the hands of millions.” That huge leap didn’t happen overnight. “It was the sum of many incremental steps forward, and decades of work,” says Crabtree, who coordinates battery research in dozens of U.S. labs.

 

Lithium-ion batteries have their limits, however, especially for use in the power grid and in electric vehicles. Fortunately, like their Energizer mascot, battery researchers never rest. Over the last 10 years, universities, tech companies and car manufacturers have explored hundreds of new battery technologies, reaching for an elusive and technically difficult goal: next-generation batteries that hold more energy, last longer and are cheaper, safer and easier to recharge.

 

A decade of incremental steps are beginning to pay off. In late 2017, scientists will introduce a handful of prototype batteries to be developed by manufacturers for potential commercialization. Some contain new ingredients — sulfur and magnesium — that help store energy more efficiently, delivering power for longer periods. Others will employ new designs.

 

“These prototypes are proof-of-principle batteries, miniature working versions,” Crabtree says. Getting the batteries into consumer hands will take five to 10 years. Making leaps in battery technology, he says, is surprisingly hard to do.


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