If you are reading this article, there is a fair amount of chance that you are reading it on a battery powered device. It might be your laptop, or smartphone, or tablet. It may also be your PC that is connected to a battery in case the AC power goes out. We thought that we would be bound by Moore’s law – that we cannot make our processor any faster, or any smaller. But we can do that. What we cannot do right now is make better batteries.
Despite all the advancements that we have made in technology, we are still using decade old tech when it comes to batteries. All manufacturers are doing right now is tweaking the battery here and there so that it lasts longer, or turns out to be safer for the environment. But nothing revolutionary has been done yet. Those who pushed the present battery tech too far suffered – the Samsung Galaxy S7, for example.
So, what is the problem with batteries and how can we solve this?
The problem starts back in the 1990s when Nickel Cadmium batteries were gradually replaced with Lithium-ion batteries. The energy density of lithium-ion batteries more than doubles the standard nickel-cadmium equivalent, with potential for even higher energy densities. It behaves similarly and can run on a single cell, rather than operating on a series. It’s low-maintenance and has a lower self-discharge.
However, lithium-ion batteries have some drawbacks. They are small, have high density and are fragile. Lithium also burns when it comes in contact with air. So, the fragility of these batteries has always been an issue. In an era where Moore’s Law has dictated constant advancement, it seems strange to think there’s a fundamental limit for any kind of technological growth. But batteries function a little differently; because there are so many variables to consider, it seems that an increase in any single area comes with a decrease in another area.
For example, you can have a battery with higher watts or higher watt-hours, but not both. That is, you can have a battery that can give you a lot of power over a short amount of time, or you can have a battery that lasts really long by giving the very small amount of power. However, you cannot have both.
However, this is not the only problem. Here is the breakdown of the challenges faced by the industry.
There are dozens of possibilities besides lithium that has just been explored. A lot of other options are yet unexplored. There is hydrogen fuel cell that provides clean energy with pure water as a by-product. There are biochemical batteries that use bacteria to generate electricity. There are a bunch of other possibilities. However, which can truly save us from this crisis is presently unknown.
Moreover, researchers are also reluctant to go to the trial and error method. So, as of now, besides lithium, we do not have any other staple energy source for our batteries.
Costs and funding.
Next comes the problem of researching batteries, testing them and mass manufacturing those batteries. According to Lux Research, the average battery startup attracted just $40 million in funding over the course of 8 years. That may seem like a lot, but most technologies require hundreds of millions of dollars just to get a good start, and possibly billions for full development.
Investors are more likely to invest in startups that actually have a chance to succeed. There are so many options for battery startups, that we do not know which will be the staple one in future.
Next comes the manufacturing issue. Whatever battery technology we select for our future should be able to power the smallest Bluetooth headsets, or even smaller tech of the future, as well as power homes and large computers.
A lot of things may work very well on the small scale, but may be lost in translation on a larger scale. The opposite may also happen. Lithium-ion batteries work well in this regard. This is why we are still sticking to lithium-ion batteries for most of our needs – it works no matter what the size is.
Testing, reliability, and safety.
Lithium-ion batteries themselves are not very safe. But they get the job done. There are hundreds and thousands of cases of lithium-ion batteries exploding or catching fire. So, any new technology trying to replace lithium ion should be safer than lithium ion. This will, however, take years of research work.
Lack of good batteries is hurting the renewable industry too. Without the ability to store energy efficiently, the renewable energy industry is not expanding the way it should be. The same is the case with electric cars, as well as cell phones. Although most tech companies are still betting on lithium ion, tweaking it more and more to store more energy, nothing revolutionary will come out of it until investors can take the risk and fund more projects.