March 27, 2018
Battery life improvement can charge many innovations
by Paul Carroll
Lest you ever think the pace of innovation will slow, here is a story about an imminent, major improvement in the kind of battery used in mobile devices. If you thought that mobile devices were ubiquitous now and that consumers had developed an insatiable desire for interacting with, among others, insurers via mobile devices, just imagine what will happen when battery headaches disappear.
The story is behind the Wall Street Journal pay wall, so I’ll summarize: In today’s commonly used batteries, the lithium ions that provide the electricity are typically stored in graphite. Silicon can store 25 times as many lithium ions as graphite—but only once; filling silicon with lithium ions crushes the structure. Various companies have now made a breakthrough, coming up with smart ways to preserve the structure of the silicon. This allows for 10% to 30% increases in the capacity of what are known as lithium-silicon batteries in the near term and has prompted at least one company to promise a two- to three-fold improvement in the longer term. Consumer devices with the new batteries are expected to hit the market within two years.
Battery chemistry is tricky. Remember when Samsung Note 7 phones spontaneously burst into flames in 2016, to the point that people weren’t allowed to carry them on to planes? Or when planes themselves caught fire in 2013? (I’m referring to the Boeing 787, a few of whose early versions had their lithium-ion batteries catch fire while the planes were on the ground.)
But, lost amid all our complaints about how quickly our batteries die, technology has made a steady stream of incremental advances that already amount to huge improvements and suggest that the end game for battery technology is nowhere in sight.
For instance, in 2010, when I worked on a project on innovation at the Department of Energy, the most common measure of a car battery’s performance, price per kilowatt-hour, was a hair under $500. Today, the cost is below $150, a drop of roughly two-thirds in just eight years.
Tesla most famously keeps driving costs down—manufacturing techniques are so important to battery performance that increasing volume drives cost down quickly, and Tesla’s Gigafactory is leading the way on scale. But lots of companies are attacking on every possible front. A quick look into our Innovator’s Edge database, for instance, finds: Dukosi, whose software manages the internal workings of batteries to improve performance; Powervault, which manages interactions with the electric grid; Bettergy, which is innovating in the membranes used inside batteries; and Mobile Enerlytics, whose software helps apps draw less power from batteries.
Now, battery life is like cookie dough ice cream. You can never get enough. At least, I can’t. So, I’m not saying we’ll ever be satisfied. But imagine how different the world will look when electric vehicles travel two to three times as far on a charge as they do now, when massive amounts of battery power get integrated into the electric grid and when ever-smaller batteries drive ever-smaller consumer devices.
We’re not in that world yet, but we’re on our way—with all the opportunity and confusion that will come with it.
Have a great week (and maybe some cookie dough ice cream).