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Assault on Batteries...

Ever since the 18th century, when Volta and Galvani were doing unspeakable things to frogs legs, inventors have been on the quest to improve the humble battery. At present there is a huge amount of effort and expenditure being channelled into research and development - with public thanks, acclaim and huge riches at stake. The global market for lithium-ion batteries is predicted to be over $76billion by 2020.

The first development, to catch my eye recently, was news from Stanford University about a new prototype aluminium battery. Details were published in April’s Nature. “We have developed an ultrafast rechargeable aluminium-ion battery that may replace existing storage devices, such as alkaline batteries, which are bad for the environment, and lithium-ion batteries, which occasionally burst into flames,” says Stanford Professor of Chemistry, Hongjie Dai. “Our new battery won’t catch fire – even if you drill through it.” To my mind, what’s even more impressive is that this new battery can be re-charged, potentially over thousands of times, in less than a minute!

Last month it was also announced that Sir James Dyson had invested $15million into Sakti3 (Sakti is Sanskrit for ‘power’ and 3 is the atomic number of lithium) – a spin-off company from the University of Michigan. Ann Marie Sastry, founder and CEO, believes that the company will produce batteries as easily and inexpensively as microchips. The secret is a design which is solid state, replacing the liquid electrolyte with a solid wall, and promises double the energy density at a fifth of the cost. Dyson hopes to harness this extra power, flexibility and smaller size in future cordless Dyson products.

Not to be ignored are activities at Tesla. Founder and CEO Elon Musk is betting on achieving economies of scale to drive down costs. Tesla have invested some $5billion in a gigantic new factory, near Reno, to produce batteries using traditional lithium-ion technology. By 2020 this one factory hopes to be producing more batteries than the entire global output of 2013. They have also announced their ‘Powerwall’ – large batteries intended to power the home with 10kWh and 7kWh models to be available. After this announcement the company received a staggering $800million of advance orders in its first week.

There is another dark-horse who shouldn’t be overlooked and that’s the man who invented the lithium-ion battery in the first place – John Goodenough. Now aged 92 he’s still as sharp as a tack and working from the University of Texas. He thinks that he still has a few tricks up his sleeve and is trying to develop and make an anode out of pure lithium or sodium metal. This would produce 60% more energy than current cells and provide the ‘step change’ in technology he believes is necessary. “I want to solve the problem before I throw my chips in,” he laughs. “I’m only 92. I still have time to go.”

These are exciting times indeed - but we’ve been here before. Previous efforts that have looked wonderful in the laboratory have failed to translate to the marketplace. I’ll leave the last word to Thomas Edison – no stranger to batteries in his day – who, in 1883, wrote in his own inimitable style: “The storage battery is, in my opinion, a catchpenny, a sensation, a mechanism for swindling the public by stock companies. The storage battery is one of those peculiar things which appeals to the imagination, and no more perfect thing could be desired by stock swindlers than that very self-same thing. … Just as soon as a man gets working on the secondary battery it brings out his latent capacity for lying.”

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