A reliance on fossil fuels has made us neglect battery technology, and it’s time for that to change

The recent woes of Samsung and its flammable Galaxy Note 7 phone batteries underlines how battery technology has a long way to go to meet the rising demands of our electric devices and vehicles.

After decades of neglect, is a new battery revolution underway?

The battery dates back to 1800 when Alessandro Volta discovered that two different metals, zinc and silver, produced electricity when immersed in an electrolyte. Fifty-nine years later, the lead acid battery, which can be recharged, was developed, and is still in use today.

But other metal combinations, such as nickel-cadmium (NiCd), and the current lithium-ion (Li-ion), have problems that need to be solved if we are to truly move into an all-electric age.

Limitations of current batteries

The fundamental problems facing all batteries have been weight, long charging times and the limited amount of charge they can hold.

Every winter, countless frustrated drivers face cars that won’t start because of dead batteries on cold mornings, and cellphones always seem to die just when you need them most.

Electric cars have been around for decades, but have always been limited in performance by batteries.

Even though the quickest production sedan in the world right now is the fully electric Tesla Model S, owners still face “range anxiety” determined by the limitations of the battery and availability of charging stations.

One reason battery research languished for more than 100 years is because we began using fossil fuels as portable energy sources instead of electricity. Gasoline contains far more energy for its weight than any battery, and an enormous industry built up to provide that gasoline.

Automotive companies abandoned electric cars for gasoline-powered vehicles, which, along with the development of a continent-wide network of highways, sent us down the fossil fuel road with the battery relegated to simply starting the engine.

Even today, there is no battery that is the same size and weight as a fuel tank on a full-sized car that can be filled in a few minutes, drive the car at 100 kilometres per hour for 500 kilometres, and be filled again in less time than it takes to order a coffee.

We have been spoiled by the energy density of gasoline.

How to inspire battery innovation

So here’s an idea: How about an international Gas Tank Challenge to develop a battery that is cheap, lightweight and will accept large quantities of electricity quickly, hold onto it for long periods, give it up on demand and last as long as the lifetime of the car?

Researchers around the world are working on new devices, such asLithium-airgraphenesodium ionaluminum graphitealuminum-air, and even a battery powered by urine

While many of these new technologies hold great promise, they often run into problems, such as the cost of raw materials, or as we’ve just seen with Samsung’s redesigned lithium-ion batteries, bursting into flames when charging.

Even worthy technologies often fail because of huge development costs of bringing them from the laboratory bench to a final product.

At the same time, that battery market is worth $50 billion US with electric cars gaining popularity and so many new portable devices coming into use. New battery research has a bright future.

One way to spur that research on is to reconsider funding. Fossil fuel industries have been heavily subsidized for decades. Some of that could be redirected towards materials science.

It would also be in the best interest of the fossil companies themselves to invest in batteries or alternative energies so they can continue to provide services and products when fossil fuels are no longer popular.

Currently, the non-profit organization X-Prize, which organizes global competitions to encourage technological development, is looking for people to vote on whether a “revolutionary battery” should be the next priority for X-Prize funding.  

Electric devices have revolutionized our lives in so many different ways. But no matter how miraculous the technology, they have always been plagued by batteries that don’t last long enough. It’s time to get on with a new energy revolution.

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