It’s time to ignite the spark of the battery revolution
- October 30, 2017
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The lofty goal of battery manufacturers is now squarely pointed at the electric-vehicle market, and storing more energy in these batteries will have a significant impact on reducing dependence on the power grid, since a battery with greater efficiency means drivers won’t need to be constantly sucking more power out from their home chargers like some kind of electrical leech. But before we can make an accurate prediction regarding the veracity of battery claims from optimistic manufacturers, we need to wind back the clock a little bit.
Over the past decade, we have seen a phenomenal amount of changes to technology as a whole. Perhaps the biggest change of all, though, occurred with the release of the original iPhone in 2007. Since then, manufacturers have scrambled to make better screens, better cameras, and better CPUs to run them. While engineers and scientists have been able to optimize the capacity of phone batteries during the last decade, the fact remains that they still rely on chemical reactions. The battery has only gone through a couple of major paradigm shifts over the last 200 years (when Alessandro Volta invented the first true battery), with the notable leaps coming with the wondrous lithium-ion battery, which gave batteries the quantum leap in battery technology that we often take for granted today. However, since that time, it remains a fact that, for all our efforts, battery improvements simply cannot keep up with the exponential rise in computing power as well as the energy it takes to run the devices themselves. Whereas a Nokia from the early 2000s might have got you a couple of weeks on standby, you’re now hard-pressed to go a whole day without needing to recharge your device.
So, where does that leave the electric car? One of the things that has historically held back progress of the electric car is, like the phone, a lack of sufficient battery capacity for its intended use. Like the smartphone market, companies like Tesla are trying. After all, they are the company behind the Gigafactory. When most people think of battery capacity in an electric vehicle, their first thought inevitably turns to the following: “How far can I go off a single charge?”. Indeed, this is a fair question; after all, what’s the point of an electric car if you spend half your time getting it recharged? But it’s not the only question.
One particular issue that cannot be overstated is the importance of a quick charge time. Even in the best-case scenario of acquiring a supercharger, times of 30 minutes or more are commonplace. If you’re just charging it at home, you’ll need to plug it in overnight. Sure, it’s extremely convenient if you don’t commute much (or at all), because it means you can eschew service stations altogether. However, while this is a great option for these people, it still raises serious questions for people who want to use an electric car as their vehicle of choice. Many commuters will baulk at the idea of having to find 30 minutes in their day to get their car charged—and rightfully so.
In February 2017, John Goodenough (whose name has inspired more name-based jokes than the last three presidents combined) decided—at the tender age of 94, no less—that he was going to one-up his invention of the rechargeable lithium-ion battery. The bespectacled genius created the first all-solid-state battery cell. Put simply, Goodenough created a battery that would last about three times as long as a traditional lithium-ion battery, with the added benefit of not spontaneously exploding.
But what does this mean for electric cars? Earlier in the year, Israeli startup StoreDot revealed its FlashBattery technology, which made the bold promise of one day charging an electric car in five minutes flat, inspiring intrigue in millions. Such a feat would truly put the electric car on level pegging with gas- and petrol-fueled cars when it came to refueling times. StoreDot hopes to bring the tech to market within three years.
While StoreDot’s goal is an admirable one, larger companies such as Toyota have given much more conservative estimates. Toyota is planning to build and release electric cars with a solid-state battery by 2022. The good news for consumers, however, is that competition for a durable battery that can surpass the range and power of a petrol-powered car will drive up research and development levels at a breakneck speed. Whoever can first maximize Goodenough’s latest breakthrough will surely reap the benefits, thereby giving the electrical grid the respite it so sorely needs.