Have you ever wondered what humankind’s greatest contemporary invention is?
You might say the laptop computer or the mobile phone. But you probably wouldn’t point to the humble battery that powers them and just might turn out to be our planet’s saviour.
And the battery, as we know it, is about to take a revolutionary leap in the storage and supply of energy. Although still in the development stage, battery boffins have been busily beavering away on something called “solid-state battery technology”.
Solid-state battery technology will mitigate that pesky problem of cutting short our smartphone conversations, the untimely shutdown of our laptop, and the angst of venturing too far from a charger in our brand new electric vehicle (EV).
The new and improved solid-state battery (SSB) will radically enhance the mundane: like laptops, smartphones, vacuum cleaners, and power tools. And also the complex: like aircraft, spacecraft, cardiac pacemakers, sophisticated drones, and EVs.
Solid-state batteries will hold more power, charge a lot faster, and last much longer than current lithium-ion batteries.
And while lithium-ion batteries contain flammable materials that can be hazardous if damaged, solid-state technology is much safer, more efficient, and more stable. And importantly, it would enable EVs to fully charge in 10 to 20 minutes and only seconds for smartphones and laptops.
A simple but magical technology
Arguably the source of our greatest convenience, batteries have yet to receive the accolades they truly deserve—a simple but magical technology that dates from about 2000 years ago with the discovery of the “Baghdad Battery” in 1938 by German archaeologist Wilhelm Konig.
The Baghdad Battery consisted of a clay jar, a copper cylinder, and an iron rod. If the iron rod was placed inside the copper cylinder then placed inside the clay jar filled with a weak acid like vinegar, it would produce about one volt of electricity.
The term “volt”, derives from the Italian physicist Alessandro Volta (1745-1847) who is credited with developing the fundamentals of modern battery technology, which he called the voltaic pile. Volta also discovered and isolated that ubiquitous GHG and exceptional climate killer: “methane gas”.
Today, battery technology is at the vanguard of the world’s energy transition. It holds the key to smoothing out the decarbonisation of the transportation industry and providing a critical backup for solar and wind power generation.
The push to make a better battery
The arrival of EVs prompted a significant spike in endeavours to make a better battery. Manufacturers began to seriously work towards a battery with greater range, lighter weight, smaller size, and lower cost.
All this required increasing the battery’s energy density which determines the number of hours a battery can operate before needing a recharge and, ultimately, battery cycle life.
Billions of dollars have gone into research and development, and billions more are in the offing once solid-state technology is perfected and commercialised.
So what’s the difference?
There is one significant difference between current lithium-ion batteries and solid-state batteries: the electrolyte.
The former has an organic liquid electrolyte composed of compounds that enable the growth of tree-like, crystalline structures known as dendrites—from the Greek dendron meaning “tree”—that form over repeated charging and discharging cycles.
Dendrites are particularly dangerous. They have long, sharp whiskers that can puncture the separator—creating a direct connection between the anode and the cathode—causing short circuits that can lead to catastrophic failure.
Tesla, for example, has been plagued by fires caused by the growth of dendrites in the lithium-ion batteries that power their vehicles.
In contrast, solid-state batteries have an inorganic solid electrolyte (SE) that does not allow the growth of dendrites.
But something else remarkable happens when reverting to solid-state technology. Changing the electrolyte from liquid to solid creates higher energy density, significantly reducing the risk of fire and explosion.
Increasing driving range and reducing charge time are problems to be solved
The biggest shortcoming of today’s EVs, by far, is driving range which differs widely between models. While the average is around 400 kilometres, the Tesla Model S Long Range Plus currently gets the best at 647 kilometres on a full charge.
While at the other end of the spectrum, the MINI Electric Hatch reportedly gets only 234 kilometres.
And fully charging an EV can take anywhere from an hour to 17 hours depending on the charging station—a public ultra-fast charging station as opposed to a standard outlet at home.
Solid-state batteries, however, will double, or even triple, the driving range of EVs, and charge times will fall to about 15 minutes.
Samsung is also developing a battery that can be charged and discharged over 1000 times and will have an EV range of more than 800 kilometres per charge. This equates to a battery cycle life of more than 800,000 kilometres, which effectively signals the end for petrol-powered vehicles.
Portability, and thus mobility, would skyrocket. Laptops and smartphones would last days on a single fast charge and battery cycle life would increase from around two years to 10.
Solid-state batteries also require less space and can operate in a greater range of temperatures, which allows for wide-ranging applications in space technology, just when space travel is emerging as the latest great adventure.
Saving our planet from Canberra’s carbon cronies
But solid-state battery technology is more than just an everyday convenience for smartphone users and EV drivers. It heralds a transformation that might just save our planet.
A global shift away from fossil-fuel powered machinery and transportation will significantly reduce carbon emissions. And as a critical plus, solid-state batteries can be manufactured with earth-friendly materials, such as the abundance of sodium found in our oceans.
But the most pivotal transformation is that solid-state batteries can be scaled up to store vastly more solar and wind energy. Finally put an end to the recalcitrant banalities of Canberra’s carbon cronies and the fossil fuel fraternity, that are, in essence, one and the same.
Recalcitrant banalities like the “the sun doesn’t always shine and the wind doesn’t always blow” so we will always need coal-fired power as a backup. Something, that in this moment in human history, can only be described as positively puerile and embarrassing.
It is now possible that the only backup we will need, perhaps as soon as 2030 if progress continues at the current speed, are solid-state batteries.
We’ve come a long way since the Baghdad Battery and the Energizer Bunny
We’ve come a long way since the Baghdad Battery (around 250 BC to 224 AD), Alessandra Volta’s invention of modern battery technology in 1800, and the Energizer Bunny (E.B.) of the 1980s and 1990s.
COVID-19 showed us what we can do when we put our collective minds and energies to a “larger-than-life” challenge.
Perhaps more than anything else, the advent of solid-state batteries provides our planet’s brilliant minds with the opportunity to realise a technology that has been around for millennia and an energy storage system that we have only dreamt about till now.
But to fully realise this technology will take leadership, courage, and especially, vision. Qualities that our current political leaders appear in constant short supply.
As the American journalist, writer, and media critic at the New Yorker, Ken Auletta, so prudently put it: “Without vision, even the most focused passion is a battery without a device.”
Dr Stephen Dark has a PhD in Climate Change Policy and Science, and has lectured at Bond University in the Faculty of Society & Design teaching Sustainable Development and Sustainability Economics. He is a member of the Urban Development Institute of Australia and the author of the book Contemplating Climate Change: Mental Models and Human Reasoning.