The rechargeable battery industry has not undergone a fundamental change in almost half a century, since the invention of lithium-ion batteries. Together with lead acid batteries, they now account for about two-thirds of the market. However, the explosive growth in demand for electronics and the transition of the automotive industry to electric motors requires the search for fundamentally new, much more advanced technologies in this area.
In March, scientists from Chalmers University of Technology announced a battery that could revolutionize the market in the near future. It is a structural battery made from a composite carbon material, which simultaneously serves as both an energy storage unit and a structural member of a structure, such as a car.
“Engineers call their battery weightless, since it does not actually weigh the device on which it will be installed.”
The technology itself was developed by Swedish scientists two years ago. Then their invention was recognized by the Physics World as the largest scientific achievement of the year. The case of the original design withstood such physical exertion, under which an ordinary lithium battery would simply collapse. However, according to one of the main indicators, the density of the stored energy, this development was much inferior to lithium-ion batteries. For two years, Swedish scientists have managed to improve both this indicator and the level of battery hardness by about ten times. Now the battery of Swedish engineers is not inferior in strength to other competitors on the market. The only problem is the density of the stored energy – it is still several times lower than that of the same lithium-ion batteries. But scientists assure that they know how to further improve their invention, and are ready to increase the performance of both key characteristics.
Taking care of nature
In addition to attempts to create batteries of a completely new type, scientists are also working on improving batteries with a half-century history – lithium-ion batteries. Batteries of this type, according to Grand View Research (GVR), are the second most common batteries in the world, only slightly behind lead-acid batteries. That is, at the end of 2019, they occupied a share of 29.5%. However, the avalanche-like growth of electronic devices that people use in everyday life, and the accelerating transition of the global automotive industry to electric motors will lead to the fact that lithium batteries will be in great demand in the foreseeable future, GVR analysts believe.
“The market for lithium-ion batteries is now estimated at about $33 billion and will grow by an average of 13% per year.”
While governments in many countries are taking more and more steps to conserve natural resources, engineers are trying to create batteries that will not use the rare earth metal cobalt. So, in the middle of last year, scientists from the University of Texas at Austin announced that they have developed a cobalt-free battery, where 89 percent nickel is used as a cathode instead of cobalt. “Cobalt is the least abundant and most expensive component in battery cathodes. And we completely exclude it from production, ”said Professor Arumugam Mantiram, director of the Texas Institute of Materials. In December 2020, the Chinese high-tech company SVOLT Energy (formerly a division of the truck manufacturer Great Wall Motor) began accepting orders for cobalt-free batteries for electric vehicles.
“In addition to reducing the content of rare earth metals, the company claims, these batteries have a higher energy density, which will allow an electric car to travel up to 800 km without recharging.”
Battery production is expected to begin in mid-2022.
The American corporation IBM is also engaged in the development of batteries without the use of cobalt. At the end of 2019, the American corporation announced its intention to completely abandon heavy metals in the production of batteries. The company assures that it has discovered a technology that allows the use of not only cobalt, but also nickel. At the same time, the battery of the new type, according to IBM, will be more productive than traditional lithium-ion, and the materials for it will be extracted from seawater. In addition, the company promises that its batteries will be cheaper to manufacture, charge faster, and have both higher wattage and energy density.
Recharge from everything in a row
In recent years, many unusual battery designs have emerged, trying to get energy from almost everything that surrounds them. So, for example, in early 2019, an international group of scientists with the support of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology presented their work on creating a battery that could generate electricity by trapping waves of Wi-Fi networks.
“Called a rectenna (antenna for collecting radio waves), the device can fit in any electronic device, even the smallest, because its thickness is only a few atoms.”
In turn, the American startup uBeam is trying to use ultrasound to transmit electricity. Energy is converted into sound waves, inaudible to humans and animals, which are transmitted from one device to another and then converted back into energy. Such an energy transmitter looks like a 5 mm thick plate. And the Israeli startup StoreDot has created a charger that uses biological semiconductors made from natural organic compounds – peptides. Such a battery, according to the assurances of the developers, is capable of charging a smartphone in 60 seconds, and an electric car in just 5 minutes, after which it will be able to drive almost 500 km.