The Long Wait for Advances in Battery Technology


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Five decades ago, one of the most influential tech entrepreneurs in history came up with an idea that would eventually become a sort of paradigm in the field of computer science. Gordon Moore, co-founder of the Intel Corporation, posited that the amount of transistors installed in a circuit board would double every two years or so, thereby increasing computing and data processing capacity exponentially.

Moore’s observation was right on point, thereby paving the way for Moore’s Law, which is proven by supercomputers such as IBM Watson down to the ubiquitous smartphones we carry around every single day. While transistor and microprocessor technology has mostly followed Moore’s Law, the same cannot be said about battery technology.

Why Batteries Should be the Next Step in Technology Innovation

Two major societal trends call for the rapid advancement of battery technology: mobility and sustainability. The way these trends are empowering human development can be clearly seen in places such as Kenya, where people in remote villages make use of M-Pesa, a mobile wallet that provides full banking and retail functionality via text messaging, and M-Kopa, a residential solar energy charging kit for homes that are not connected to the electrical grid.

The functionality of M-Pesa and M-Kopa is highly dependent on battery technology. For Kenyan villagers, smartphones are more than just mobile wallets; they have become their windows to the world beyond their communities, and the batteries that store energy from their solar charging kits keep their mobile devices charges and their homes illuminated at night.

In other parts of the world, governments are calling for a full transition to electric vehicles for mass transportation purposes, and they intend to keep them charged with electricity generated by sustainable energy sources, which also call for the use of batteries. Many other projects that only a few years ago seemed too futuristic are now becoming a reality, but they hinge upon improvements to battery technology; some of these include flying taxis, drones that can travel very long distances, and smartphones that could continuously stream high resolution video for weeks.

Moore’s Law Does Not Easily Apply to Batteries

A 2013 article published in Scientific American magazine clearly explained why Moore’s Law has not been observed in battery technology, and it boils down to electrons versus ions. In the case of microprocessors, they can continue to be made smaller and faster because electrons barely take up any space. In the case of ions and energy storage, more space is required.

Under the current practice of improving upon lithium-ion technology, there is only so much that can be done to make batteries smaller and more powerful. In the consumer electronics world, users have made some concessions in this regard with their preference for “phablets,” those very large smartphones that can accommodate larger batteries; however, the world has reached a breaking point with regard to lithium-ion technology.

What the Future Holds for Battery Technology

Rethinking battery chemistry is the first step in accommodating the next generation of personal computing, which involves “always-on” devices expected to last days and weeks without the need to recharge.

Lithium-air and lithium-sulfur technologies are next in line for batteries. Japanese electronics giant Sony has reportedly solved the conundrum of sulfur quickly dissolving in the cathode elements of batteries, and the company expects to double current battery life by 2020. If successful, Sony would be the first company to achieve something close to Moore’s Law in the energy storage sector, and at a lower price since sulfur is easier to produce that the ion extracted from cobalt.

At one point, the use of small hydrogen fuel cells was considered, but this would only increase the risk of explosion. A better option is being looked at by a Silicon Valley startup that seeks to eliminate most of the chemistry being used today. The key material would be carbon, which is already found in many smartphone components, but the energy transfer and storage system would have to function in a manner similar to super capacitors.

In the end, the world cannot wait for the next generation of batteries to power not only smartphones but also computers, cars, buses, flying taxis, and even our solar energy appliances after the sun goes down each night.

Author: Ryan Yarbrough