Battery life has become one of technology’s biggest hurdles as the adoption of smartphones and devices continues to skyrocket across the world.
The demand for longer-lasting devices and the increased use of electric vehicles has forced some of the world’s greatest minds to get to work developing something new.
The lithium-ion battery has been a dominating force since its introduction in 1991, powering the smartphone in your pocket and your laptop at home.
But these batteries lose power as they’re charged and are causing increasingly permanent environmental damage to South America’s Lithium Triangle, which encompasses Argentina, Bolivia and Chile.
Wood Mackenzie Energy Research & Consultancy estimates that in the U.S. alone, the total market value of the energy storage industry will be $5.3 billion by 2024.
Throughout the year, there have been dozens of announcements and investments in new battery technology that will change how we use energy in the next decade. Here are the five biggest battery innovations of 2019.
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University of Illinois at Chicago’s lithium-carbon dioxide battery
In September, researchers at the University of Illinois at Chicago said they were the first to show that lithium-carbon dioxide batteries can be designed to operate in a fully rechargeable manner.
Amin Salehi-Khojin, associate professor of mechanical and industrial engineering at the school’s College of Engineering, and his team announced that they completed tests of a lithium-carbon dioxide battery prototype that was able to run up to 500 consecutive cycles of charge/recharge processes.
According to the University of Illinois at Chicago, the researchers used new materials like molybdenum disulfide to “encourage the thorough recycling of both lithium carbonate and carbon.”
“Lithium-carbon dioxide batteries have been attractive for a long time, but in practice, we have been unable to get one that is truly efficient until now,” Salehi-Khojin told the school’s magazine.
“Our unique combination of materials helps make the first carbon-neutral lithium carbon dioxide battery with much more efficiency and long-lasting cycle life, which will enable it to be used in advanced energy storage systems.”
IBM’s No Metal, “Sea Water” Battery
To close out the year, IBM announced that its research division has come up with a new kind of battery that officials say is made of never-before used components that can all be extracted from sea water.
Young-hye Na, IBM research manager for material innovations for Next-Gen Batteries, explained in a blog post that her team “has discovered a chemistry for a new battery which does not use heavy metals or other substances with sourcing concerns.”
“Discovered in IBM Research’s Battery Lab, this design uses a cobalt and nickel-free cathode material, as well as a safe liquid electrolyte with a high flash point. This unique combination of the cathode and electrolyte demonstrated an ability to suppress lithium metal dendrites during charging, thereby reducing flammability, which is widely considered a significant drawback for the use of lithium metal as an anode material. This discovery holds significant potential for electric vehicle batteries, for example, where concerns such as flammability, cost and charging time come into play,” she wrote.
“In initial tests, it proved it can be optimized to surpass the capabilities of lithium-ion batteries in a number of individual categories including lower costs, faster charging time, higher power and energy density, strong energy efficiency and low flammability.”
MIT’s Carbon Dioxide Battery
Researchers at MIT announced the creation of an innovative specialized battery that they have proven can absorb carbon dioxide from the air passing over its electrodes as it is being charged up and then release that gas as it is being discharged.
In October, MIT’s David Chandler wrote that the battery “could provide a significant tool in the battle against climate change.”
The battery is explained further in a detailed paper in the journal Energy and Environmental Science by MIT postdoc Sahag Voskian and T. Alan Hatton, the Ralph Landau Professor of Chemical Engineering.
“The greatest advantage of this technology over most other carbon capture or carbon absorbing technologies is the binary nature of the adsorbent’s affinity to carbon dioxide,” Voskian told Chandler.
Hatton added that his team has “been striving to develop new technologies to tackle a range of environmental issues that avoid the need for thermal energy sources, changes in system pressure, or addition of chemicals to complete the separation and release cycles. This carbon dioxide capture technology is a clear demonstration of the power of electrochemical approaches that require only small swings in voltage to drive the separations.”
University of Adelaide’s non-toxic zinc and manganese
Dongliang Chao and Professor Shi-Zhang Qiao from the University of Adelaide’s School of Chemical Engineering and Advanced Materials designed a new battery made of non-toxic zinc and manganese as well as incombustible aqueous electrolyte.
The two scientists signed a $700,000 research deal with a Chinese battery manufacturer, Zhuoyue Power New Energy, to work on their patented technology.
“I can imagine this battery being used on all vehicle types from small scooters to even diesel electric trains. Also in homes that need batteries to store solar power, or even large solar/wind farms,” Chao told South Australian newspaper The Lead in November.
“With more sustainable energy being produced – such as through wind and solar farms – storing this energy in batteries in a safe, non-expensive and environmentally sound way is becoming more urgent but current battery materials – including lithium, lead and cadmium – are expensive, hazardous and toxic.”
The two researchers said they wanted to bring the idea to market in the next 12 months and got a lot of traction because Australia has a copious amount of naturally found zinc and manganese.
According to Chao’s estimates, the cost of this new battery will be less than $10 per kWh compared with $300 per kWh for many current lithium batteries.
Nikola’s free-standing electrode automotive battery
Late last month, Nikola CEO and Founder Trevor Milton told Forbes that his company had created a new kind of battery that didn’t use nickel, cobalt and other dangerous metals while asserting it provided double the energy density and just 40% of the weight.
Milton was circumspect about the details surrounding the new technology but the Phoenix-based startup has been hard at work building new electric, hydrogen-powered semi trucks powered using hydrogen.
“It’s the world’s first free-standing electrode automotive battery. We went to a whole different type of chemical, with a lithium component. It’s hard to explain what it is without giving up the secret sauce,” Milton said in the interview with Forbes in November.
Milton said they will hold the first public demonstrations of the technology at their Nikola World technology summit in Phoenix in 10 months.