Booting Up the Search for Better Batteries
Lithium-ion batteries power everything from our laptops to phones to electric vehicles, but they’re far from perfect. In fact, they were the culprits behind Samsung’s recent exploding Galaxy Note 7 phones.
“The word ‘bomb’ is not out of place here,” says David Pogue, tech columnist for Yahoo Finance and the host of NOVA’s documentary “The Search for the Super Battery.”
As he explains it, lithium-ion batteries are positive and negative electrodes, separated by an electrolyte liquid that happens to be highly flammable. “Lithium-ion is not the best storage device,” Pogue says. “They are explosive, they are expensive … they have a limited amount of hours they can power your phone, and they can only be recharged, let’s say, 400 times. So the world really needs something better than this 1991 technology.”
Luckily, he recently scoured research labs all over the country with his documentary team, in search of the “super battery.”
A super battery refers to a single battery that has it all, he explains. “You want it cheap, you want it to last for a long time, you want high-energy density, and you want it to be environmentally friendly — both during its lifetime and after it’s done.”
For now, at least, no one battery can do everything we want batteries to do, but Pogue’s travels indicate the research field is booming. “Some of the coolest things we looked at were ice batteries and gravity batteries and flywheel batteries and saltwater batteries and dirt batteries,” he says. “It’s just billions of dollars are being poured into this, in research labs all over the world.”
The most promising battery the documentary team came across is being developed by Tufts University Professor Mike Zimmerman, Pogue says. He’s confronted the problem of lithium-ion’s explosive liquids head on — by eliminating the liquids.
“He’s made a solid sheet of a special plastic, a special polymer, that lets the ions travel back and forth between the electrodes even better than a liquid electrolyte does,” Pogue says. “And yet, because it’s a physical barrier, you can’t short out like lithium-ion batteries can. So these are plastic electrode batteries.”
According to Pogue, Zimmerman’s battery can also use lithium metal without risk of short-circuiting. The metal has five times more energy density than the compound we use now, he explains. “But of course, it’s five times more explosive as well, so we don’t use it. But he can. And already he’s getting double the length, the power density of lithium-ion. So think of a car. Now, instead of going 200 miles on a charge, it can go 400 miles on a charge.”
When the documentary team visited Zimmerman’s lab, they turned out to be the first media he’d ever hosted there — the project had been under wraps for several years, Pogue says. “And I said, ‘Why aren’t Samsungs and Apples beating a path to your door?’” Pogue recalls. “He says, ‘You know who was here yesterday? Samsung.’”
Zimmerman had Pogue test the battery in his lab — by slicing pieces of it away with scissors, as it powered a panel of LED lights. “Not only did it not blow up my face, but the light panel stayed on until I cut this thing into a paper doll,” Pogue recalls.
Zimmerman’s startup, Ionic Materials, is working to commercialize the technology. And while solid-electrolyte batteries could someday power our personal electronics, Pogue says there’s another big focus of research: Developing storage systems for our electrical grid.
“Right now, when you turn on your light, that electricity is not waiting in your wires like water waits in your pipes,” he says. “It has to be generated in real time, and that’s a problem for solar and wind, which are intermittent sources. So we need a way to capture solar and wind power so that it’ll be there when we need it.”
But unlike consumer electronics, the grid doesn’t need lightweight, compact batteries, he says. “They can be saltwater and other chemistries, and really big and ugly and huge because they don’t move. But as long as they are environmentally clean, and they store energy and last for many years, that’s just what we need.”
And when it comes to designing batteries for the grid, Pogue is excited about flywheels — which store energy in the momentum of fast-spinning rotors. He’s seen them store energy for a minute or so, but a California company called Amber Kinetics has developed one that can store four hours of energy.
“It’s a 5,000-lb. steel wheel, spinning at 8500 rpm. There’s no friction because it’s suspended by a magnet and in a vacuum canister,” Pogue says. California’s Pacific Gas and Electric Company has already ordered 20 megawatts of grid storage using the flywheel, beginning in 2020.
Pogue says the wheel can be “spun up” at night, using cheap electricity — or during the day, using solar power (as he suggests in the documentary). When we need electricity from the flywheel battery, “the motor will reverse and become a generator, and capture that kinetic motion and turn it back into energy,” he explains.
So, while the search for the super battery is technically still on, Pogue is excited about where the field is going. “To be totally honest with you, when NOVA told me they wanted me to host an hourlong show about battery chemistries, I’m like, ‘Oh yeah, there’s a best-seller right there,” he says, laughing.
If you’d like to support David Pogue’s next NOVA special, go to his kickstarter: novakickstarter.com
David Pogue is a technology columnist for Yahoo Tech and a correspondent for NOVA, CBS Sunday Morning, and Scientific American. He’s based in Connecticut.
IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. We’re talking about battery power this hour. The future limitations of new batteries, old batteries. You know, lithium ion batteries do power electric vehicles, but they’ve also been in the news in a very unflattering way, as the culprit behind the exploding Samsung Galaxy Note phones. That’s because what makes lithium ion such a popular battery for powering our electronics is also the thing that makes it highly combustible. It’s very high energy density, and any flaw, even just a drop of water, can short the system and turn your device into a dangerous fireball.
So here again, researchers are asking, is there something better than the lithium ion battery? But cars are not the only focus. Think bigger, much bigger. Batteries on a larger scale have the potential to provide the electric grid with something that is sorely needed, a way to store energy.
And my next guest explored the wide world of batteries, from the ones that power your devices to ones that could help combat climate change, all in a NOVA documentary, “The Search For The Super Battery.” David Pogue, tech columnist for Yahoo Finance, correspondent for NOVA and CBS Sunday Morning and Scientific American. Good to have you back David.
DAVID POGUE: Why, thank you so much, sir.
IRA FLATOW: We just talked a lot about the limitations of lithium ion as an EV battery, and it sounds like there are similar drawbacks to those batteries powering our devices.
DAVID POGUE: There are, indeed. Lithium ion is not the best storage device. There are chemistries that have better energy density. They are explosive, they are expensive, they have a limited life in two ways. They have a limited amount of hours they can power your phone and they can only be recharged let’s say 400 times, before they start– so the world really needs something better than this 1991 technology.
IRA FLATOW: Can you fill us in a bit about what actually happened with that Galaxy Note phone. Why is the battery like a ticking time bomb inside it?
DAVID POGUE: Yeah, well, you know the word bomb is not out of place here. A lithium ion battery is a positive and a negative electrode, you know an anode and a cathode, separated by a liquid. It is a flammable– it’s basically kerosene. It’s the electrolyte liquid inside every phone. We are carrying a bomb around in our pockets. Absolutely.
On YouTube, you can go and watch people jabbing at these batteries removed from their phones and tablets with a screwdriver or a hammer, and they explode. I mean they explode. There are these montages on YouTube. So the only thing that keeps them from blowing up all the time, first of all, there’s controller circuitry that makes sure that it doesn’t charge or discharge too much, and also these things are manufactured in incredibly controlled expensive clean room conditions, zero humidity, zero dust. As you pointed out, the slightest imperfection in that electrolyte will make it unstable and will make it blow up.
So what happened with Samsung is one of their subsidiaries provided the batteries and they had a tiny imperfection. I mean, not just a drop of water, I mean a particle of water is all it would take, and then they recalled all the Notes and they found a new supplier for the batteries, and perfect storm, the same thing happened. So it was just really bad luck and some bad design.
IRA FLATOW: So you explored in your series on NOVA, a whole bunch of stuff, different kinds of batteries. What is a good candidate? Are there good candidates out there for replacing lithium ion batteries?
DAVID POGUE: Well, that’s the cool thing. To be totally honest with you, when NOVA told me they wanted me to host an hour long show about battery chemistries, I’m like, oh yeah, there’s a best seller right there. But you know what, I was so wrong. Some of the coolest things we looked at. Ice batteries, and gravity batteries, and flywheel batteries, and salt water batteries, and dirt batteries. It’s just billions of dollars are being poured into this in research labs all over the world.
We spent a whole week in Detroit, of course, the hub of the American Electric car industry, or part of the hub, and there’s a lot of work being done there. I could speak for three hours about some of the cooler things, but maybe I should tell you about the most promising thing we saw is at Tufts University, a plastics professor, polymer professor named Mike Zimmerman, has decided well, if the problem is this explosive liquid in all of our batteries, why don’t we get rid of the explosive liquids?
He’s made a solid sheet of a special plastic, a special polymer, that lets the ions travel back and forth between the electrodes even better than a liquid electrolyte does, and yet because it’s a physical barrier, you can’t short out like lithium ion batteries can. So these are plastic electrode batteries and to make matters even better, because there’s physically no way for a short circuit to occur, he can replace the lithium ion material, the compounds he’s using, with actual lithium metal, which we know to have five times more energy density than the compound we use now.
But of course, it’s 5 times more explosive as well, so we don’t use it. But he can, and already he’s getting double the power density of lithium ion. So think of a car. Now instead of going 200 miles on a charge, it can go 400 miles on a charge. And your phone, instead of charging it every day and a half, you can charge it every three days.
On the show you’ll see, he pulled out one of these batteries from an iPad and from a smartphone of his chemistry, and he had me stab at it with a screwdriver, and he took another and had me cut pieces away with scissors while it was powering an LED light panel. Not only did it not blow up in my face, but the light panel stayed on until I cut this thing into a paper doll.
IRA FLATOW: So why haven’t we got this battery? What’s holding it back?
DAVID POGUE: I have a feeling you will soon. It was greatly delightful to us to find out that we were the first media he’d ever had in his lab. It’s been under wraps for three years, basically. I said, why aren’t Samsung’s and Apple’s beating a path to your door? He goes, you know who was here yesterday? Samsung.
IRA FLATOW: You’re having an effect.
DAVID POGUE: Yeah. He says the only thing stopping him is scaling up. In other words, there’s no such thing as a lithium metal battery factory. No one’s done that. So that’s it.
IRA FLATOW: I guess the lawyers are also working on a patent for this before they want to let it out of his sight. Let’s go to the phones to San Mateo, California. Mark. Hi, welcome to Science Friday.
MARK: Thank you. I am in a battery technology start up, and we are using ceramic semiconductor, metal glass alloy electrodes, and saline-based solid state based electrolytes. And it was working very well. The saline, salt water batteries have a low energy density, except that they have high amperage capacity and we can exploit that. So we were looking at 700 watt hours per kilogram, it’s estimated. We don’t have the right equipment yet to do a really accurate test, and it goes up from there. The modeling shows going up to well over a kilowatt hour per kilogram.
IRA FLATOW: So you’re working on something.
DAVID POGUE: The interesting thing about what your caller is saying is that one of the big focuses of Search For The Super Battery was not batteries and our gadgets in our cars, but on the grid. Of course, right now when you turn on your light, that electricity is not waiting in your wires like water waits in your pipes. It has to be generated in real time, and that’s a problem for solar and wind which are intermittent sources. So we need a way to capture solar and wind power so that it’ll be there when we need it, and you can’t use lithium ion batteries.
So my point here is that we don’t need small compact and lightweight when it comes to grid batteries. They can be much lower energy density. They can be salt water and other chemistries, and really big and ugly and huge because they don’t move. But as long as they are environmentally clean, and they store the energy, and last for many years, that’s just what we need. So that’s what’s cool about things like salt water batteries.
IRA FLATOW: Now we see that Elon Musk and his company are creating these giga factories, create to build the batteries. Are they flexible enough– do you know– to suddenly change? What if something better comes along and they’re all tooled up to do what they’re doing. Can they just switch and change to make a better battery?
DAVID POGUE: That’s a great question. Yeah, the Gigafactory, they’re building it in Nevada. It’s well on it’s way. When it’s done it will be the largest building in the world. It’ll be bigger than a Boeing airplane factory, and they say that it will make lithium ion batteries. It’ll pop them out, quote “Faster than a machine gun shooting bullets.”
IRA FLATOW: Wow.
DAVID POGUE: Yeah, so the question is when better chemistries come along, can they retool? I mean I’m hoping that they’ve thought this through. I assume that they can just change the machines when the time comes.
IRA FLATOW: I also saw that some people are still working on the flywheel battery. Now, I remember back in the 60s it was a cover of one of the magazines had a flywheel car on, and I actually went out to California to see it in the 70s. It was made out of epoxy and it spun up at thousands of RPM. Are they still working on this idea?
DAVID POGUE: They are, and very, very successfully. We’ve had flywheel batteries that can store energy for a few seconds or maybe a minute, but this company called Amber Kinetics out in California has one. It’s a 5,000-pound steel wheel spinning at 8,500 RPM. There’s no friction because it’s suspended by a magnet and in a vacuum canister, so there’s zero friction. This thing would spin for weeks if you didn’t touch it. But the idea is at night when energy is very cheap– and in fact, we use so little electricity that some plants actually burn it off. They waste it because there’s no way to store it.
So the idea is that they will spin these flywheels up at night using this basically free electricity, and then during the day when we all wake up and turn on our appliances, the motor will reverse and become a generator and capture that kinetic motion and turn it back into energy, and these things can store four hours at a time. And what we didn’t have time to mention on the show is that this is a real thing. PG&E, the biggest utility in California, has ordered a $20 million order of these things. They’re going to build this whole field of them, by the way, buried under gravel because the only possible downside of these things is if they fly apart they would kill everybody within a mile. So they bury them in gravel and they’re giving it a try this spring.
IRA FLATOW: One of the problems they had in the car is when they actually had them in the cars was that you have this tremendous gyroscopic effect. You couldn’t turn the car, this giant spinning wheel. I’m Ira Flatow. This is Science Friday from PRI, Public Radio International. I’m talking with David Pogue on Science Friday. We’re talking about batteries. Let’s see if we can get a phone call or two in here. Hey, let’s go to Sarah in Coventry, Connecticut. Hi, Sarah.
SARAH: Hi there. David, I was wondering if you could speak to what, if any, focus is really being placed on making sure that the research and development of materials, and the human power, and all of the transportation, and everything in the system, the engineering side of things, what kind of focus is being placed on making sure that the carbon footprint of all of these new technologies is minimal as possible? I know as a consumer I would love to support any kind of company that would give a cleaner material, but also in the future make sure that it is not producing secondary carbon footprint problems, and just simply kicking the can down the road or replacing the issues that we’re having with the oil and gas industry today.
DAVID POGUE: Right. Excellent question. So this NOVA special is called “The Search For the Super Battery.” You can just Google it. It’s available to watch free online. But it’s called that because there’s no battery that has everything. You want it cheap, you want it to last for a long time, high energy density, and you want it to be environmentally friendly, both during its lifetime and after it’s done. You want to be able to recycle it. You don’t want it to be toxic in the landfill.
So every battery scientist we spoke to is painfully aware of these five or six competing interests, and you can’t have it all. So as we were saying, you can get cheap and long lasting for an energy plant, but it’s not going to be mobile and lightweight. So to answer your question more directly, all of this is in the name of the environment. All of it. Electric cars, battery storage for power plants that will allow them to use renewable energy. All of this is ultimately in the name of a cleaner environment, but all of them are also worrying a lot about what happens to these materials when they’re done.
So I asked Mike Zimmerman, the plastic electrolyte guy, about that and he nodded and he said, OK, these ones are no better than lithium ion. When they’re done, they’re done, but that’s at the top of our to do list. The next generation we hope will be more recyclable.
IRA FLATOW: So we really don’t know who has the magic formula yet. There’s still so much competition.
DAVID POGUE: Yeah, I suspect it’ll be specialized batteries with different characteristics for different purposes.
IRA FLATOW: And what’s interesting, we were talking before about what happens to electric vehicle batteries. They might be able to put them back on the grid and used as partial storage devices.
DAVID POGUE: Exactly, that’s a great idea. And by the way, these plastic electrolyte batteries, Mike Zimmerman’s batteries, are also perfect for cars, he says, because A, they don’t explode, and B, they carry at least double the energy density.
IRA FLATOW: You’re not set on what you think. Do you think he has a leg up on the next battery? The plastic battery looks pretty good.
DAVID POGUE: The answer is yes. I mean, I’ve seen it with my eyes, I’ve seen it in an iPad, I’ve seen it in a phone, I’ve tried to make it blow up. It doesn’t. At the same time, I have to say we spent a year shooting this special and we went all over the country, and there are lots and lots and lots of exciting developments, and people saying they have the next thing, and all kinds of things can derail the process. So can’t promise anything, but I have to say, this Ionic Materials, that’s Mike Zimmerman’s company, that battery it just blows everybody’s mind.
IRA FLATOW: And we’ll see how much money still goes to government battery research in this new administration. [INAUDIBLE]
DAVID POGUE: Kill me now.
IRA FLATOW: All right. David Pogue, tech columnist for Yahoo Finance, correspondent for NOVA, CBS Sunday Morning, Scientific American, plays the piano on the side, and he’s the correspondent, I guess, in “The Search For The Super Battery,” a NOVA documentary still on. Thank you, David. Always good to have you.
DAVID POGUE: Thank you so much.