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Battery power gets way more interesting

Written By: - Date published: 10:10 am, September 27th, 2019 - 35 comments
Categories: Economy, tech industry - Tags: , , , , , ,

Anyone who has been around tech for the last couple of decades will be aware of the liberating and industry disruptive effect of batteries. A piece that showed up in my Medium feed yesterday caught my attention – “Tesla May Have Invented a Million-Mile Electric Car Battery“. It was well worth the read.

Medium does have a paywall if you don’t have a subscription but it allows a free full read of  a certain number of articles per month.

Since Edison a century ago, the world of batteries has been riven with exaggeration and fibs. U.S. university and private labs routinely announce purportedly important new leaps, only to go quiet when the cameras are gone.

Tesla CEO Elon Musk himself has been roundhoused for what a lot of people, including U.S. regulators and Wall Street, suggest is an addiction to making claims he cannot fulfill, and sometimes outright violate the law. But now the carmaker has filed patents for a battery system that could last one million miles, enough for 76 years of driving for the average American motorist. Has anyone ever asked for such a car? It’s not obvious they have. But if you are in the mind of Musk, you will see past that, to a future fleet of cars that can transform into driverless, automated taxis when not being used by their owners. A fleet that he hopes will turn into a big new profit center for Tesla.

Leading battery researchers in the United States and Europe, while uncertain about the cost of the Tesla system, say a new academic paper describing the million-mile battery is rigorous and convincing. “The results are spectacular,” said Gerbrand Ceder, a professor of materials science at University of California, Berkeley.

The paper, co-authored by Jeff Dahn, a professor at Dalhousie University in Canada, who is on contract with Tesla, suggests a substantial advance for driverless taxis, buses, and semi-trucks that can recharge in roughly 20 minutes, along with electric grid batteries boasting two-decade lifespans. These are among the greatest ambitions of the new electric age, and a new lithium-ion battery that does what Dahn describes would go far in reviving Musk’s reputation for mastery of applied cutting-edge technology.

If you think about the effect of battery technology recently, it is pretty clear that the shift into Lithium base batteries  of various kinds has substantially shifted our technological base. Their characteristic over older chargeable batteries is that they charge faster (at least up to ~80% capacity), have few ‘memory’ effects after repeated charges, are significantly lighter than other battery forms for the same charge, and last longer. 

For me, they allow my phone that last for days even when I use it intensively, provide up to nearly two weeks worth of power for my e-bike that I use to commute to work, and power the laptops that I often use in weird locations.

On my last return trip from work in Singapore, I wrote code for most of 11 hour trip on a single battery pack. That would have been unheard of in any of my previous laptops, including those I has only two years before. I was also sending my updates back on the servers.

All of my planned future purchases show the slow flip to lithium. The next upgrade of the UPSes (uninterruptible power supply) that back the server for this site will shift from lead-acid to lithium. It lasts longer both for the site if the power goes out, and for my power cycles. The last car that I’m likely to buy will be an electric vehicle. Our current car is a 1992 Toyota Corona with 250k on the clock and starting to get some rust.

As the article points out, battery technology hasn’t followed anything like Moore’s law for silicon chips. But it has significantly improved over time (costs in US dollars).

A decade ago, a lithium-ion battery cost more than $1,100 kWh, the measure for energy density. At the time, the U.S. Department of Energy set a goal of $100 kWh, a milestone that, if reached, would elevate electrics into a head-to-head battle for primacy with combustion cars. To those like me hearing the goal at industry conferences year after year, it seemed all but absurd. Never did I hear a researcher suggest it was possible.

Yet, according to a recent study by BloombergNEF, a renewable energy research firm, we are almost there. Last year, the cost declined to an average of $176 kWh. Within five years, it will drop to under $100, BNEF says.

What is interesting about the claims in this paper is that they’re not looking so much at innovations as simply being able to consolidate all the known best practice. Even the innovations are incremental rather than revolutionary.  That helps a lot for pushing these into production. 

Yet there are innovations. Dahn’s primary advance — the “secret sauce,” according to Venkat Viswanathan, a professor at Carnegie Mellon — is the electrolyte, the crucial liquid that facilitates the movement of ions between the two electrodes. It is there that Dahn, adding chemicals such as methyl acetate, gains the ability to charge fast without damaging the battery.

And, to achieve the leapfrog in life, Dahn, among other things, fundamentally changed the battery structure. Current batteries tend to fracture during the charge-and-discharge cycle. But when you enlarge the crystals that make up the cathode — swapping out relatively small polycrystalline particles for larger, “single crystals” — the cracks diminish and even vanish. “Single crystals are more robust,” says Allan Paterson, head of program management at the Faraday Institution in the U.K.

The more general faster charge would revolutionise the operation of electric vehicles. Especially if the faster charging also didn’t damage the battery. That would change the design of how they are used.

I have dealt with batteries a lot directly or indirectly for most of my work over the last decade. Even the most modern lithium batteries die, mostly in response to repeated charges. Charging is hard on batteries. This isn’t hard to detect. My e-bike battery would make a good foot warmer when it is charging up for that last 20% of capacity. I haven’t looked into the hardware design of the batteries. But I’d take a bet that spilling heat isn’t a desired design feature for a long life.

But this means that a lot of the design and weight of modern lithium batteries is directly related to the requirement to have to dealing with charging heat and how to replace damaged batteries.

The battery usually doesn’t last as long as the rest of the gear. That means you have packing at the individual battery level, standardised shapes, and connector systems that are designed to removal. This is all overhead and extra weight.

There are obvious exceptions to this. If you open up modern cellphones you will see contorted battery shapes required to pack everything into a small slim shape with a large screen. But cellphones are still designed for limited life cycles and rapid change.

It gets different if you’re looking at electric car or a battery pack for a solar array. These usually currently consist of discrete batteries able to be removed individually. If you start having batteries that last longer than the rest of the gear, then there are some obvious design changes that will come. Lighter fixed installations will also make the design use of batteries a whole lot easier.

All of which means that the next decade of batteries is likely to be very interesting. As the article points out Dann is not into ‘BS’ whereas Musk has been pulled up on it repeatedly. So if this lives up to its potential in production, then it could be pretty transformational.

35 comments on “Battery power gets way more interesting ”

  1. Andre 1

    There's the issue of battery life and number of charge cycles. Tesla are at the head of the pack.

    Then there is the issue of energy density. Tesla packs are at around 167 W.hr/kg, which is a bit over half of the theoretical possible for the chemistry they use.

    An alternative chemistry is lithium-sulfur, where Oxis appear to be the leaders. They are now producing batteries with energy density over 300 W.hr/kg, less than 1/5 of the theoretical possible for the chemistry. Also don't use cobalt or other rare nasties. Cycle life is poor so far at around 500 cycles, but if/when that improves it will be another quantum leap in battery capability.

    • lprent 1.1

      If this works out as Dann Dahn appears to be stating is likely, then battery life and charge cycle issues will pretty much be a past issue.

      I’d agree about the densities. There is quite a way to go on that. The issue is that only the lithium-ion appears to be ready for production. Oxis for instance are only really in development phase and as became obvious during the lithium-ion development, the phasing into production is just as crucial.

      I’m looking more at production this decade than development over this decade.

  2. Ad 2

    OMG the Tesla cars are way too expensive.

    Most kiwis will only buy second hand, and I'd be waiting on reliability before I looked to changing.

    • lprent 2.1

      Sure. New feature systems always are. What you can buy now is essentially 3 year old technology and priced accordingly.

      However that wasn't what I was talking about directly. This isn't about cars – it is about batteries.

      Telsa has quite a lot of business interests including operating Gigafactories. They're aren't just intended for providing batteries for Telsa. Currently they mostly do because they only have 3 or 4 and they buy in from other suppliers.

      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gigafactory_1

      Most of the cost of the BOM of any electric vehicle outside of development costs are the cost of the batteries.

      What this is indicating is a solution out of supply cornumbrum for lithium batteries in general. Less batteries to replace means that there are more available from existing factories to supply new. This means (using basic economics) that the price falls off a lot faster for a new tech.

    • Ken 2.2

      You're right,most of us Kiwis will only buy second hand.And will apartment dwellers each have a charging port,? or will they be queuing for one when everybody comes home from work ( if the Body Corporates only install a few?) The battery packs under the cars are not always waterproof,so driving thru deep puddles could fry the batteries.We have huge tyre dumps in some NZ country areas,I worry about the individual 4,000 + batteries (per car) that our useless Councils will not know how to dispose of properly.

  3. Roflcopter 5

    How will this stack up against solid-state battery tech, based on aluminium, that's in rapid development? Pretty sure Hyundai have put up about $1b on this approach.

    • lprent 5.1

      I will be interested when they get it into production.

      Remember it took about 20 years to take lithium from the functional demonstrations to wide scale production.

      The issue is that we need much wider production now. Not in 20 years.

    • Andre 5.2

      As for as I'm aware, solid state and metal-air batteries haven't progressed much beyond lab experiments. The major exception I'm aware of is zinc-air batteries. So production is unlikely for at least a decade or two. But there's enough potential in them to justify serious development efforts.

      Magnesium-air, aluminium-air, lithium-air batteries are all in the range of 6000 W.hr/kg theoretical energy density, whereas lithium ion theoretically tops our around around 600 W.hr/kg and lithium sulfur around 2700 W.hr/kg.

      In terms of current production however, lithium-ion batteries are made in the billions, if you really wanted lithium-sulfur batteries you could probably buy quantities in the thousands. But if you want solid-state or metal-air, you'd need to go and grovel to a lab team to knock something together for you. Here's the latest I'm aware of for Hyundai's solid state efforts, and that was over a year ago.

    • Ruapehu John 5.3

      Aluminium/air batteries use a liquid electrolyte and a silver/manganese oxide catalyst to produce 8 kWh from each kilogram of battery, with the Al oxidising to Al(OH)3.
      A medium-sized electric car travels about 4km per kWh of electricity, so 3 Kg of aluminium will power a car for about 100 km, and a battery with 100 Kg of Aluminium will power it for about 3000 km. But like the old zinc/MnO2 torch battery, you have to swap it for a complete new battery when all the aluminium is oxidised. The battery recycling workshop would drain off the Al(OH)3 and send it back to Bluff for electrolysing into aluminium metal again, while the staff would put in new Al cathodes and new electrolyte into the old battery box. As with cylinders of natural gas behind houses for cooking, cars will probably have two 50 kg aluminium batteries, so you can switch to the second one when the first one needs replacing, and replace it at any time in the next 1000km.

      • Andre 5.3.1

        You want to put some qualifiers around that 8 kWhr/kg claim? As far as I'm aware, that's the absolute maximum energy available from the reactants alone, without any of the structure and other stuff needed to make an actual battery. Actual batteries come it around 1.2 to 2.0 at best kWhr/kg.

        The obstacles for aluminium – air batteries are power density, round-trip energy efficiency and self-discharge.

        Power density of aluminium-air batteries are up to 200W/kg -so if you want 100kW to accelerate your vehicle, the battery needs to be 500kg. Compared to a Tesla lithium ion battery pack that's around 500kg and can supply over 400kW.

        Round-trip energy efficiency is also apparently quite low – around 15%. The original energy source for the battery is electricity, to reduce the oxidised aluminium to turn it into metal. Then in the battery, the metal aluminium re-oxidises to give up that stored energy as electrical energy. But the energy released is at best only around 15% of what originally went in. That's very low compared to hydrogen that has a round-trip efficiency of up to 40%, or lithium batteries which can go over 90%.

        Self-discharge also appears to be very high in aluminium – air batteries. This can be avoided for storage by not introducing the electrolyte until needed. But once the electrolyte and aluminium are put together, the battery discharges around 80% of its energy within a month, compared to less than 5% for a lithium battery.

        So I find it hard to see aluminium – air batteries becoming the majority of batteries in use. Perhaps they might develop a niche as range extenders for electric vehicles on long road trips.

        • lprent 5.3.1.1

          That was my understanding about aluminium air batteries as well. Long-term storage one-shots and not ‘rechargeable’ outside of an industrial enclave due to the byproducts. Pulling and replacing the anodes will never be a particularly easy operation.

          They didn’t have significiant advantages over virtually any form of lithium battery for normal daily operations. They weren’t efficient at releasing the energy used to ‘charge’ them.

          Good backup emergency battery when the electrolytes are stored separately. But that makes it pretty hard to test them (always problem with backup batteries anyway).

          Effectively they largely got superseded for normal usage by the advances in lithium based batteries.

  4. mango 6

    I'm not holding my breath. The universe is not obliged to make a technology possible for us just because we want it.There are plenty of examples of tech that never get close to their maximum theoretical potential despite decades or even a century of intensive development and strong economic incentives. I'm not saying it's impossible just that it may not be a good idea to bet the future of the world on it.

    • Andre 6.1

      Not sure what you're getting at with "bet the future of the world" comment. What we know for sure is that continuing to burn massive amounts of fossil fuel will lead to a very very unpleasant future. So it is hugely in our interests to find a way to a future that doesn't burn massive amounts of fossil fuel (and doesn't have even worse unintended effects).

      Even if battery technological development completely stopped at the state we have now, there is still a massive amount of current fossil fuel burn we could switch to zero-ghg electricity, as is already starting to happen. But battery development is coming on in leaps and bounds, as the batteries get better and cheaper, it will just be stupider and stupider to cling to dinosaur-juice for our energy wants.

      • Dukeofurl 6.1.1

        The biggest issue is still the weight. Thats not going in leaps and bounds. Electric Vehicles get a 'free pass' because fossil fuelled engines in a typical use is so inefficient – say 10% wheres any battery powered electric motor can do over 90%, the extra weight problem doesnt show up as the vertical distances in most commutes are small. In addition the typical EV cycle is a short hop to work and back with maybe 1 passenger

        Trying to do all day every day duty cycles for loaded trucks not so good.

        Planes have a serious problem as plane certified batteries are way less energy density than those that might be in a laptop. The low temperatures at the high altitudes where thin air is most efficent dont help along with the energy to climb many Kms high. And the extra weight factor is made much more difficult as the drag due to weight plays a big role. ( a factor that doesnt matter for road vehicles or laptops)

        • lprent 6.1.1.1

          Trucks is more of an engineering issue. It gets at least partially fixed operationally with faster recharges as that gets those short enough for regular recharges during the working day.

          The torque issues are more of a problem. Imagine a hill start with a load of logs. But I’d expect that some kind of fuelled hybrid for that particular issue would help there (although the drive train would be complex).

          But longer term better road design would help a lot. If the grade is reduced then electrics would work better. They do on rail systems for instance.

          I still haven’t seen any in-production solutions for aircraft. Electric planes simply aren’t likely because of the weight/load issues of all battery based systems.

          Maybe the new hypersonic plane with its hydrogen fuelled air breather if it gets commercial.
          https://edition.cnn.com/travel/article/hypersonic-flight-air-breathing-rocket-scli-intl-gbr-scn/index.html

          Of course that might be a Hindenburg issue as there really isn’t any good way to store hydrogen we know of yet.

  5. mango 7

    By "bet the future of the world" I mean that there is a strong tendency to think that we can just swap "dirty" for "clean" technology and carry on with business as usual. There is reason to think that that will never be possible regardless of how good our technology gets. I'm concerned that people will think they can just wait a few years for the miracle breakthrough that could easily never come.

    I'm not advocating for fossil fuels. What is more likely to happen it that there will be a whole raft of measures and technologies that will have to be implemented not just electrifying everything and not changing our lifestyles and levels of consumption.

    • lprent 7.1

      I mean that there is a strong tendency to think that we can just swap "dirty" for "clean" technology and carry on with business as usual.

      Agreed. But take that further – no technology is 'clean'.

      It isn't hard to argue and measure that climate change by humans probably started around 5000 years ago. There isn't any obvious reason for the warming trend starting to countervail the underlying orbital cooling around then.

      Rice paddy cultivation started a methane based warming pattern around then. That climate stability of not falling into another glacial probably also explains the reason for the remarkable development of human civilisation since then.

      There are lead contamination traces apparent in Greenland ice cores from airbourne debris and smoke in Roman times. I'm sure as we dig further we're going to find more.

      The burnoffs in Australia and the subsequent desertification – not to mention the megafauna deaths are pretty clearly the result of human occupation around 35-40kya.

      So my question is what defines a 'clean' technology. Because I can’t see any. Just think of the awful destruction of ecologies when plants gained the biological technology to excrete oxygen about 3 billion years ago on earth.

      Personally I just want to substitute cleaner technologies for the ones we have now and try to avoid the megadeath (and ecological nightmare) solutions of trying to drop technology capabilities that sustain our current over population.

  6. gsays 8

    Thanks LPrent, some reading to get on with.

    A fellow off gridder has had to replace his new battery bank as the parameters on his inverter essentially 'cooked' the batteries. Faulty install…

    Adding life to the average no battery ever dies, they are all killed.

    Anyhow they have been replaced with lead carbon batteries- $24000 worth.

    I will be keen to see how they perform.

  7. Lucy 9

    Surely the principal shouldn't be about replacing one tech with another. At the moment I agree with millennials, we the boomers, Gen Xers, Gen Y's are all about taking the stuff we do currently and dropping out one tech for another. When lithium batteries die we will dump them the way we dump lead batteries. We need to think of our world and its resources differently not replacing new lamps for old! Jobs need to be ordered differently – during the industrial revolution we changed the way we ordered ourselves so towns were built round factories. We need people who can think of how to reorder our world. Stuff Musk and his new for old and find a new planet thinking – most of us will be left to sort out the dross the billionaires made of our world.

    • lprent 9.1

      With vehicles, you're replacing oil with electricity. In NZ that means almost entirely non-fossil fuelled electricity rather than CO2 being pumped into the oceans and coming back over the next few thousand years.

      While lithium batteries have small amount of some metals in them, lithium isn't are rare element. 25th most common in the earth's crustal area. It has low concentrations, is metallic and subject to numerous technique for extraction at low concentrations.

      But sure. If you want to deliberately kill about 6+ billion people over decades, then we'd drop most technology overnight. If you want to kill only about 3-4 billion over the next 30 years then you’d drop to a subsistence level, equivalent to something like late 19th century levels.

      Most of the good solutions disappeared after the world population went over 3 billion or so. The ones we’re left with are how to substitute technologies with less bad ones as we slowly drop population growth levels, and then hopefully start reducing it – or the megadeath solutions.

      To be blunt, it’d be nice if you actually explain your plan so I can discuss about the level of mass murderer you are willing to be. 😈

      • Lucy 9.1.1

        Slow change wont do it, so while incremental change will not solve it maybe it would help! I wasn't saying get rid of technology I am saying that replacing cars with EV's whilst it may work where energy is renewable isn't the global solution. We need to move more than 2 people at a time which requires a rethink of how we work, play and live. We do not need to get rid of what we have, just rethink choices, like our reliance on plastic and inventing completely useless stuff to use up waste – the whole plastic microdots for cleaning! We may need to rethink some of the accepted myths like we need to shower at least once a day, we need to wash clothes in hot water, we need pets, we need lawns and flower beds, we need walk in wardrobes full of clothes, we need perfect fruit and vegetables. I don't want to be a mass murderer and I do want discussions about things you are sneaking into the mix. We do need to slow down population but some countries already having a falling population Japan since 2015 Italy since 2018 and others. But in most countries the only way to drop populations is ensuring the minimum quality of life improves.

  8. Stuart Munro. 10

    I wonder what the effect will be on lithium reserves – at present most is coming from brine reserves in south America – not without environmental cost. Possible NZ lithium reserves are mostly the altered granites of Stewart Is., though there is some in geothermal brines.

    • lprent 10.1

      One of the nice things with lithium is that there is a ready source in the oceans and we already have the means to access it artificially. Evaporation and filtering brine like we do for sea salt isn't enough.

      The nice thing about lithium is that is a metal. That means that even at the 1-2ppm concentrations there are a variety of ionic extraction techniques. Especially after it gets concentrated into brine.

      The concentration of brine from desalination plants offers a good starting point.

      Ummm https://www.samcotech.com/is-it-possible-to-extract-lithium-from-seawater/

      https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2542435118302927

      etc..

      That is assuming that no-one can come up with anything easier – like plugging it into ships propulsion systems.

      • Poission 10.1.1

        There are a number of areas of research into Aluminum batteries which have a significant energy storage capacity (with established manufacturing mining,refining and recycling structures).

        https://www.victoria.ac.nz/__data/assets/pdf_file/0004/1454755/aluminium-batteries-resource.pdf

        https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fchem.2019.00268/full.

        The benefit is that they can also be built big and used to transport energy from locations with surplus to areas with energy deficits.

        • lprent 10.1.1.1

          Sure. And they should start doing way more work on it. Apart from silicon, nothing else is nearly as easy to resource in a stable sustainable and reusable form. The problem is that they really haven’t managed to design and test anything that looks like production viable. That means it is going to be at least 20 years from being usable.

          Right now we need to go with what can be produced.

          • mike 10.1.1.1.1

            how about carbon engineerings carbon nutural fuel backed by bill gates

            • Andre 10.1.1.1.1.1

              The problem is likely to be energy inefficiency. The process almost certainly requires electrical energy is an input, and the chemical energy contained in the output fuel will be much less than the input energy. Then when it's burned in some sort of internal combustion engine, the conversion of fuel chemical energy to mechanical energy is very low.

              Let's be generous and guess a 50% conversion efficiency electrical energy to chemical energy in creating the fuel, then 30% efficiency converting chemical energy to mechanical energy moving the vehicle, for an overall efficiency of 15% from initial electrical energy to useful mechanical energy. In comparison, if we're pessimistic about the losses going from electrical energy through transmission lines through a charger into a battery then into an electric motor to move a vehicle, better than 70% overall efficiency is readily achievable.

              So unless the application absolutely requires the very high energy density of liquid fuels, ie medium and long haul aviation, then creating fuel from air is unlikely to be competitive against batteries.

              Hydrogen suffers a similar inefficiency problem, although not as bad. Hydrogen also presents pretty severe materials engineering and safety hazards to overcome before widespread use becomes viable.

      • Stuart Munro. 10.1.2

        I have often thought that many environmental technologies need to start as side-hussles of other processes, like long-run roofing with integrated solar coatings, passive solar desalination networks for arid areas, or as you say, lithium stripping shipping or desalinators.

        I hope that Tesla's found something, and, once that bar is jumped it's likely that more aggressive efforts will follow for the likes of aluminum.

        There's been a nice step in algal fuel tech too, with a jet stripping process Algal lipid extraction using confined impinging jet mixers .

  9. Exkiwiforces 11

    This interesting, if old mate Musk can get these new batteries mass produced and able reduce or prevent the Lithium Ion Batteries from venting, btw the toxic gases from a Lithium Batteries a not kind to one’s health from own personal experience. As we used Lithium Ion Batteries for our Manpacked Radios and for our Personal Counter IED Systems as the Lithium Ion Batteries were lighter and could re- change a lot faster than the other ones which were heavily, but didn’t vent toxic gases when dropped or over heated when high power use cause them to vent.

    I would serious consider buying a Bollinger Ute instead of possibly buying the new version of the Landrover if and when I replace my 2008 110 Landrover.

    • Dukeofurl 11.1

      I think you will find Landrover will move on the tech for upgrading its existing models to be more electric type hybrids

      However do you see the flaw with fully electric off road vehicles

  10. mango 12

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AdPqWv-eVIc

    This is a good video on the potential limits of battery technology.

  11. Dreadnaught 13

    Jeff Dahn is a really interesting guy. He's basically the Thomas Edison of Lithium batteries. His first objective was to determine the failure times/charging cycles of Li-ion cells, and made the most fantastic testing rig to mass-test cells with high accuracy. Nothing else comes close. He became a legend in the industry. Every single Lithium battery manufacturer goes to him for testing, because he's, hands down, the best.

    Back in 2016, I was involved with Ampd.Energy (HK) to try and get Dahn involved as a consultant, but he'd been locked up by a big company (assumed either Telsa or Samsung) to do confidential contracting for a couple of years.

    If it's Jeff Dahn saying it, I'd listen.

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