Power, and particularly electrical power, keeps the modern world turning. However, it is the latest technology in the world, enabled by that electrical power, that grabs the headlines. The software coding of AI to VR and blockchain captures the intellect and the hardware they power, or will soon power, such as smartphones, driverless cars, IoT devices and digital assistants whet our insatiable consumer appetite.
Amongst the shiny gadgets and futuristic concepts of what the technologically utopian world of tomorrow will look like it can be easy to forget how despite the advances in what tech can do it still all uses the same power source – electricity.
When we do think about electricity it is also usually with a focus on its generation – renewables vs. fossil fuels. Power generation is certainly important and it’s even more certainly extremely politically charged. Amid the strategic importance of power generation and excitement over the end results of what the technology it powers can and might soon achieve, the importance of the intermediate stage, energy storage, is often overlooked. It shouldn’t be. There is a strong argument that energy storage is the most important technology in the world today. In the world of tomorrow it will be even more key.
We use more energy than ever before. That’s through a combination of using more ‘things’ that work on electrical power, a quickly growing population and a general rise in living standards meaning more people in more places can afford electrical devices. That’s a problem due to the environmental toll. The positive news is the latest technology in the world of renewable energy has advanced to the point where it is close to, in some circumstances already equal to or an improvement on, the economic viability of fossil fuel equivalents.
In the same way as electricity reached economic parity with gas over the decades that spanned the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th, renewables as the source of electricity are catching up with fossil fuels. However, for us to cross the last major bridge towards parity between renewable energy sources of electricity with fossil fuels, a new generation of battery technology is required.
Lithium Ion Batteries – They’ve Gotten Us Here But Can’t Take Us Much Further
Lithium ion battery technology was invented as the 1970s drew to a close, though it wasn’t until the early 90s that Sony commercialised it. Since then lithium ion batteries have become hugely more efficient and are what powers our energy hungry personal electrical devices as well as enabling renewable energy plants and even the new generations of hybrid and fully electric cars. However, while that progress is welcome, the basic technology of batteries has remained the same for decades now. And the efficiency of lithium ion batteries is approaching peak. There isn’t thought to be much more we can squeeze out of the technology. But a gap remains in terms of what we need now and even more so to what our needs will soon become.
A Forbes article explains that for lithium ion battery technology to be financially viable for the grid and for electric cars to reach parity with those with petrol-powered engines, prices need to fall by 50% to 80%. That means that efficiency needs to increase by more than is currently thought possible within the inherent limits of the battery technology. While lithium ion batteries degrade much more slowly now than previous generations of the technology, they still degrade more quickly than is ideal. Also, there is a limit to how many lithium atoms can be squeezed into a battery, which caps the density of energy that can be achieved. We might still be able to squeeze 50% to 100% more efficiency out of lithium ion batteries but, scientists believe, that is the absolute limit.
The kind of batteries we need to fully transition to renewable sources of electricity across industry, motor vehicles and to power the tech that is increasingly infused into everything around us will need to be based on a new underlying technology. Making the breakthrough with that technology is proving more difficult than most technology challenges we face and has become a bottleneck to the transition towards clean, renewable energy.
Beyond Lithium: The Battery Technology Challengers to Power a New, Cleaner World
Which new battery technologies are currently being worked on and are considered to hold the potential to succeed and exceed lithium ion? While battery technology research and development may not receive anywhere near the amount of media coverage as other kinds of tech, there is plenty going on in the background. Battery technology may not grab the imagination and fire the enthusiasm of tech journalists, presumably because readers are more interested in consumer and ‘new’ technology developments. However, for whoever patents next generation battery technology, either offering comparable performance to lithium ion at a significantly cheaper price point, or much higher energy density, the commercial value will be huge.
The size of the prize means that plenty of investment and work is going into battery technology, though progress is slow and there is as yet no clear breakout direction that shows marked superiority to others. With 150 years having passed since the first battery was built by Alessandro Volta, the same Forbes article as referred to earlier accurately surmises that any really significant improvement on current Lithium ion battery technology will ‘test the bounds of human knowledge’.
The search for the ‘super battery’ that will allow electric cars to travel hundreds of miles on a single charge and allow the grid to store enough renewable energy to make the full transition from fossil fuels is still very much ongoing and no real solution is in clear sight. There are, however, three main directions of research and development in the pursuit of a significant incremental improvement on Lithium ion battery technology.
Substituting lithium for another metal is the first and most achievable of those. Zinc, Magnesium and Calcium are all contenders that are both much cheaper than lithium and are thought to have the potential for significantly greater energy density.
Substituting the intercalation process for a chemical reaction alternative is another route being pursued. Combining Lithium and Sulphur to form Li2S, is a process which can store and release energy more efficiently and shows promise but is yet to be commercialised. It is believed that Lithium Sulphur batteries could, however, multiply the energy density achievable through current Lithium ion technology by a factor of five and do so using much cheaper materials as components.
Liquid flow battery technology is the third direction being pursued. This technology is far cheaper than Lithium ion but doesn’t improve on energy density. This kind of battery is also very heavy but is considered to have particular promise as a utility-scale grid storage solution.
The ‘Super Battery’
None of these options are, however, considered to really be potential ‘game changers’. They are possible improvements on the battery technology we have in different use cases but do not represent the ‘great leap’ forward required.
Solid state, silicon anode and metallic lithium anode batteries are all technologies being worked on feverishly and are considered as possible contenders. However, the ‘breakthrough’ has not been made in any. Even when it is, it will take several more years to perfect, scale and create efficient manufacturing facilities and supply chains at scale.
In an interview transcribed in The Verge, Steve LeVine, author of The Powerhouse: Inside the Invention of a Battery to Save the World, describes how far away the ‘super battery’ still is:
“What I’m saying is that when you get the really serious battery guys over a beer and ask them, off the record, ‘Tell me the truth. Has anyone you know in any of the formulation had a breakthrough?’ The answer is “No.” No one even has one on the horizon”.
Despite how negative that blunt statement may sound, LeVine refers to himself as ‘a believer’. He is confident the size of the stakes and amount of investment in the pursuit of the ‘super battery’ means the breakthrough will happen and that there is a high chance it will be within the next decade. However, it will then take some more time before commercialisation and manufacturing logistics bring new ‘super battery’ technology to market.
The extent to which power moves geo-politics also means that the repercussions that will ripple out from a real breakthrough in battery technology will change far more than be a huge reprieve for the environmental impact of our energy needs. LeVine speculates that it will revolutionise the global economy and result in a fundamental shift in geo-politics.
‘Economies that have thrived off of the petroleum age won’t be thriving anymore’.
That warning is as much for the USA’s hopes of retaining its central role in the global economy and geo-political landscape as it is for the possibly more obvious Middle East. South Korea, Japan and China are all ahead of the USA in the race for the next generation of battery technology, especially with regards to production. LeVive predicts that just as wealth has flowed through the supply chain root of fossil fuels, in a new battery-powered renewable energy economy, wealth will flow through the supply chain of batteries and the ‘technologies they enable’.
The advent of the ‘super battery’ could, then, reshape the global distribution of wealth and political power to the same extent as it reshapes the world through technology.