Breakthrough Technology Could Lead to Battery-Powered Future0

Eric Wesoff | Mon Aug 8 2011 |

Battery technology has moved way beyond simply powering your basic consumer electronic devices; batteries now help power the world at large. But advances in battery technology have been slow to respond to the power demands of modern life.

Moore’s Law sees computer chips double in performance and drop their price 50 percent every 18 to 24 months. But batteries adhere to much slower experience curves; they double in performance perhaps every ten years. This stubborn refusal of battery materials to yield in price and size explains the high cost of electric vehicles and grid storage.

While investors are looking for battery startups with mighty performance improvement promises, entrepreneurs are on a quest for new materials and processes to accelerate the way batteries work at the material, anode, cathode and system level.

Liquid Metal Battery—a company pursuing a breakthrough battery design using molten antimony and molten magnesium separated by an electrolyte—attracted Bill Gates and oil company Total as seed investors.

The inventor of the core technology is Don Sadoway, MIT Professor of Materials Chemistry, one of the school’s most popular professors and sought-after speakers. Using seed money from within MIT, Sadoway and his team invented the liquid metal battery or, more academically, a process called Reversible Ambipolar Electrolysis.

Sadoway claims that the all-liquid configuration is self-assembling and is expected to be scalable at low cost. Furthermore, this technology may have a shot at being cheaper than sodium sulfur (NaS) batteries.

Across the country in Long Beach, CA, Ionex has created the Energy Storage System—a 1-megawatt-hour unit using large-format prismatic batteries based on lithium iron phosphate (LiFePo4). These batteries are capable of producing 1 megawatt or 2 megawatts of continuous AC power from a 40-foot shipping container weighing 35,000 kilograms, which can be mounted on a concrete pad or on a wheeled trailer.

And then there’s A123, who specialize in nanophosphate lithium-ion batteries and systems. With a corporate revenue mix of 50 percent transportation, 40 percent grid, and 10 percent consumer, A123 provides advanced technology solutions at the cell, module and system levels.

Finally, there’s stealthy battery startup Amprius, who’ve raised $25 million and boast investors like Trident, Google’s Eric Schmidt, and Stanford University. The firm is using a silicon nanostructure to replace a carbon anode system in batteries.

CEO Kang Sun claims that silicon has “an intrinsic energy density ten times higher than carbon.” He called Amprius “late science stage, early engineering stage” and noted that the firm’s technology is four times better than current technology.

As entrepreneurs and investors continue to focus on developing new battery technology, it’s not unreasonable to surmise that, one day, battery technology will play a major role in the clean energy economy.

Illustration by Oliver Munday