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The Next Big Thing
Where will the next battery breakthrough come from?Brian Cooley explains the challenges associated with battery technology and the types of innovations emerging in the sector.
[MUSIC] Let's talk about batteries for a moment. Doesn't it seem as if we're still charging things as often and for as long as we did a few years ago? [MUSIC] As researchers come up with a new technology that looks promising that's not going to make an impact until it can be manufactured. Very inexpensively with great quantity. Researchers continue to advance, not necessarily at the rate that you see with processors. We've all become very used to just about every core component of technology we use getting much better, much faster, every year. This has lead to all kinds of bastardizations of Moore's Law, which stated that the amount of transistors on a piece of silican would double roughly every two years, we've turned that into a mean that everything gets better than the year before even faster, and then there are batteries. They clearly have not followed a Moore's Law exponential curve. Batteries start up NVS systems surveyed the market's history, and found the amount of charge in a given battery back in 1995. Took 13 years to double. So much for Moore's Law. And it won't double again they predict until 2020. And because batteries are so widespread from small devices to very large ones the benchmarks that which we measure them are pretty broad as well. First of all you've got charge time. How long does it take to get it back to a charge from when it's depleted? And this is a big one in every day use. Related to that is energy density. How much energy can you put into a battery of a given size and weight. Then there is, specifically, the size and weight. Leaving density out, can you make the battery smaller, more malleable, weigh less. So it can make the phone lighter. Make it package better in the electric car. Then there's cycle life, this is generally seen as how many times you can recharge a battery from mostly empty to mostly full before it drops below 80% of it's ability to hold a charge. That's kind of a ballpark it, where most people say a battery is getting depleted. And of course there's cost, if any of the above have breakthroughs, but they make the battery unaffordable in it's application, doesn't matter. There are also some ansulary benchmarks around how easily a battery can be kept within its temperature range especially in electric cars, keeping that battery from being too hot or too cold adds a lot of complexity and costs to the vehicle. You also have concerns about toxicity in chemical formula and recyclability. Now we can't begin in a few minutes to begin to catalog all the breakthroughs that are being pursued in labs around the world. But here are a couple of buckets of where they tend to group. First there's chemistry. The exact chemicals and materials that are being used are always being fiddled with, beyond the current, very common, lithium ion. The dual carbon battery, being developed in Japan is said to have no heat generation when being charged or discharged. IBM's lithium air battery is said to have much greater energy density than current lithium ion. Lithium silicon is said to be expandable at the molecular level to allow for faster charging. And the recent buzz from Stanford is around a pure lithium battery. The researchers hope will triple the energy density while quartering the costs of today's lithium ion battery applications. MIT and University of Texas are taking one more pass through the periodic table, trying new brews of silicon, sulfur, and sodium, but even if they strike gold, these are many years to market. Then that brings us to nanotechnology, you could go on for days about the number of projects that are exploring using graphing in future batteries. It's a new nano material that could address both charge cycle and energy density, it's believed. And you may have heard about the so-called 30 second charge phone battery, a prediction based on some research released lately by Store Dot, a company that is working with nano crystalline structures. And related to all this, watch the non-batteries trying to make incursions on battery's territory. One of the biggest categories, and an older one, is capacitors. These charge and discharge much more quickly than most batteries, but they also hold less energy, have a lower energy density. But they're already being used by Mazda and Lamborghini in automotive, for example, to power a brake energy regeneration system, and a start-stop system, respectively. And then, of course, there are hydrogen fuel cells that basically take hydrogen and create current and water vapor from it. It's a very elegant solution, but, of course, facing a lot of hurdles right now. One of the most interesting and telling developments is how Tesla and Toyota have sort of quietly gotten divorced on what was a very big effort between them to make battery electric vehicles. But now, Toyota is pushing hard on fuel cell electric vehicles. Perhaps the most exciting part to watch about battery technology is that these core breakthroughs when and if they happen, will effect devices from the smallest to the largest, very likely. Anything from your phone to your laptop to your electric car. Even to storing excess power coming off the solar panels on the roof of your home. When there's a breakthrough in the battery area. A real breakthrough. It's gonna touch a lot of people. [MUSIC]