Beyond lithium — the search for a better battery

As the world’s power needs grow, the search is on for better battery technology — not just to keep smartphones charged for longer, but to run electric cars and to store energy produced by solar and wind power.

For the last 25 years, the lithium-ion battery, has held sway. Packing a large amount of energy into a relatively small space and weight, these are in greater demand than ever for mobile phones and electric cars. In fact, 2017 has been, in the words of HSBC’s Paul Bloxham, a nirvana for lithium. The price of the commodity has been driven 240 per cent higher. Batteries accounted for 35 per cent of lithium use in 2015, up from 25 per cent in 2007, with electric vehicles, phones and personal computers accounting for 60 per cent of that market.

Lithium-ion’s limitations are apparent, however, to anyone who has seen their mobile phone battery draining suddenly. There is a growing interest in finding alternative technologies.

“There’s a sense that existing lithium-ion batteries and related charging technologies are reaching their limitations,” said CCS Insight, the research company.

Samsung in November revealed that it had developed a technology based on a “ graphene ball” that could potentially boost its battery capacity by 45 per cent and increase charging speed five-fold. Keen to put behind it the memories of the exploding batteries in its Galaxy Note 7 phone, Samsung has been putting a lot of effort into battery research, and news that the graphene-based power unit would take just 12 minutes to be fully charged was welcomed by many.

Yet the technology, similar to Qualcomm’s Quick Charge system, really only represents an enhancement, rather than a replacement, for lithium-ion.

Graphene has long been seen as a vital ingredient for future energy needs. Other alternatives being researched include fuel cells, photosynthesis, solid state technologies, sodium-ion, solar, foam, aluminium graphite, sand and even human skin. Many of these have the advantage of being either safer or more abundant than lithium, the production of which is dominated by a handful of companies.

However, research in these technologies largely remains in the labs with little sign of a full commercialization on the horizon. Hydrogen fuel cells, first invented in the 1830s, have long been seen as the most viable alternative to lithium batteries. Yet the technology has been held back by high material costs since the 1990s heyday of hydrogen development. There has been some headway in harnessing hydrogen as an alternative power source but the ultimate aim is to use fuel cells to overhaul the transport market. Japan is leading the way with Toyota and Honda both pushing to develop the technology.

Yet it remains a tough task. Intelligent Energy, a UK fuel cell company linked with developing the technology for use in smartphones, was quietly sold in October to one of its investors after admitting that a sales collapse risked leaving shareholders with little, or no, value.


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