Lithium-Ion Pioneer Says New Cell Holds Triple the Power, but Will It Be Good Enough?

Ronnie Schreiber
by Ronnie Schreiber
lithium ion pioneer says new cell holds triple the power but will it be good enough

One of the factors holding back widespread acceptance of electric vehicles has been the development of battery storage. Until now, there has been nothing analogous for batteries to the computing industry’s Moore’s Law, which has seen integrated circuits become significantly more powerful, faster, and cheaper with each generation. While there have been incremental improvements in energy density — the primary drawback to battery power — a number of promising new battery technologies have not panned out.

Now, a research team headed by John Goodenough, whose 1980 invention of a cobalt-oxide cathode made powerful lithium-ion batteries possible, has announced the development of a solid-state battery cell that not only has the potential (no pun intended) to store three times as much power as a conventional lithium-ion cell, but also replaces the cells’ liquid electrolytes with a glass compound. That would eliminate the fire and explosion hazard known to Li-ion power packs.

The new cell’s chemistry also allows for the replacement of lithium, a relatively rare and expensive element mined in just a few places on Earth, with sodium, which can be easily and cheaply mined or extracted from our planet’s abundant sea water. Finally, the cell operates well at low temperatures. Electric vehicles with conventional lithium-ion batteries typically have reduced range in extremely cold conditions.

In a paper published by the Energy and Environmental Science journal, Goodenough (who is 94 years old), an engineering professor at the University of Texas at Austin, joined senior research fellow Dr. Maria Helena Braga and two associates in explaining the new cell’s advantages over conventional cells. Mainly, that it is noncombustible, can withstand a higher number of charge/discharge cycles, is at least three times as energy dense, and can discharge that energy quickly. It also promises to charge more quickly than today’s batteries. While energy density directly affects range, which is perhaps consumers’ primary concern, slow recharging times also hinder consumer acceptance.

Braga began researching glass electrolytes while at the University of Porto in Portugal. Two years ago she started working with Goodenough’s team. A patent on the current results has been granted to the inventors and assigned to UT Austin.

Goodenough said in a press release issued by the school, “Cost, safety, energy density, rates of charge and discharge and cycle life are critical for battery-driven cars to be more widely adopted. We believe our discovery solves many of the problems that are inherent in today’s batteries.”

Batteries work by placing two electrodes in an electrolytic solution. Electrons (in this case lithium ions) flow from the cathode, the positive electrode, to the anode, the negative electrode. Connect the two electrodes externally with a circuit and those electrons are available to power things as they flow back to the cathode.

If a conventional cell is recharged too quickly, metal whiskers called dendrites can form around the electrodes, hindering ion exchange. If the dendrites extend across the cell, they’ll short circuit the device, causing it to overheat and potentially explode or burn. The use of glass compounds for the electrolyte eliminates the formation of dendrites and also allows for the use of alkali metal-based anodes, something not possible with conventional Li-ion cells. That increases energy density and cycle life. Test cells have withstood more than 1,200 charge/discharge cycles without increased electrical resistance.

Previous solid-state cells have required high heat to work. The research team says that this is the first solid-state battery cell that can operate below 60 degrees Celsius (140 Fahrenheit). Not only will it work at normal temperatures, the glass electrolyte continues to have high conductivity at -20 C (-4 F), promising decent energy output in all but the most severe winter weather.

While the initial test results are promising, it should be pointed out that it took more than ten years after Dr. Goodenough’s invention of the cobalt-oxide electrode for lithium-ion batteries to become practical enough for commercial production.

In an ironic twist, should the Braga-Goodenough cell actually be good enough for use in EVs, it could redound to the benefit of the traditional Motor City. The city of Detroit sits on top of a huge salt mine.

[Images: University of Texas at Austin, Michigan State University]

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  • Stingray65 Stingray65 on Mar 10, 2017

    The Chevy Bolt battery weighs almost 1,000 lbs and gives 200 miles of range, so about 5 lbs of battery per mile. So if this battery technology proves to be safe, effective, cheap to manufacture, and 3 times more dense than the current Bolt battery it would allow 5 lbs of battery to go 3 miles. In comparison, a gallon of gasoline weighs 6.2 lbs and in a Bolt sized car will typically allow 40+ miles of range - still a long ways from matching the energy density of carbon-based fuels.

  • Jimf42 Jimf42 on Mar 11, 2017

    Great improvement for LiOn batteries...but really not enough for the future...we need batteries with twice that capacity for electric cares to be fully practical. That being said Goodenough is a brilliant scientist and this is a worthwhile breakthrough.

  • ToolGuy CXXVIII comments?!?
  • ToolGuy I did truck things with my truck this past week, twenty-odd miles from home (farther than usual). Recall that the interior bed space of my (modified) truck is 98" x 74". On the ride home yesterday the bed carried a 20 foot extension ladder (10 feet long, flagged 14 inches past the rear bumper), two other ladders, a smallish air compressor, a largish shop vac, three large bins, some materials, some scrap, and a slew of tool cases/bags. It was pretty full, is what I'm saying.The range of the Cybertruck would have been just fine. Nothing I carried had any substantial weight to it, in truck terms. The frunk would have been extremely useful (lock the tool cases there, out of the way of the Bed Stuff, away from prying eyes and grasping fingers -- you say I can charge my cordless tools there? bonus). Stainless steel plus no paint is a plus.Apparently the Cybertruck bed will be 78" long (but over 96" with the tailgate folded down) and 60-65" wide. And then Tesla promises "100 cubic feet of exterior, lockable storage — including the under-bed, frunk and sail pillars." Underbed storage requires the bed to be clear of other stuff, but bottom line everything would have fit, especially when we consider the second row of seats (tools and some materials out of the weather).Some days I was hauling mostly air on one leg of the trip. There were several store runs involved, some for 8-foot stock. One day I bummed a ride in a Roush Mustang. Three separate times other drivers tried to run into my truck (stainless steel panels, yes please). The fuel savings would be large enough for me to notice and to care.TL;DR: This truck would work for me, as a truck. Sample size = 1.
  • Art Vandelay Dodge should bring this back. They could sell it as the classic classic classic model
  • Surferjoe Still have a 2013 RDX, naturally aspirated V6, just can't get behind a 4 banger turbo.Also gloriously absent, ESS, lane departure warnings, etc.
  • ToolGuy Is it a genuine Top Hand? Oh, I forgot, I don't care. 🙂