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The Battery Problem

Moving electricity is costly, but solutions are still lagging.

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The fires sweeping the West Coast of the United States point to the need for a whole different way of managing power on both a macro and a micro level.

Since the millennium, the power demand from data centers and from mobile devices has been climbing steadily. There are roughly 7.8 billion people on the planet, up from 6.115 billion people in 2000, according to the World Bank. Many of them own at least one electronic device, and some of them own many more than one. And while these devices are radically more efficient compared to a decade ago, the sources of power for those devices are not.

In places like the U.S. Southwest, in deserts in Northern Africa, central Asia, and in other sunny and dry areas like Australia, there is no shortage of solar energy to harvest. In other regions, wind and geothermal energy can be utilized. But the bigger challenge is figuring out how best to store and move that energy, and finding an equitable way to share it.

Moving electrons in the form of electricity (between atoms) is roughly the same challenge that chipmakers face on a nano scale in the form of data (strings of electrons). In semiconductors it’s expensive, and the more data that is generated, the more it needs to be utilized locally. It’s roughly the same for power. The more electricity that needs to be moved, the more the solution needs to be rethought. When many of these power grids initially were electrified, they were meant to achieve economies of scale by centralizing power. But as more people and more devices need to be powered, much more energy needs to be generated and stored locally.

The problem here is batteries and battery management. While electronics have improved significantly, battery technology itself has proven difficult to scale. Progress happens at a much slower pace compared to transistors and other digital technology. Batteries also are expensive, they don’t last long enough, and they are potentially explosive — literally — if they aren’t properly cooled.

Solid-state lithium-ion batteries, which use solid electrodes and a solid electrolyte, have been in development for nearly a decade. How much progress has been made depends upon how you measure that prorgress. These devices are still prone to dendrite growth and voids, and they don’t last long enough after repeated cycling (charge-discharge-charge). Still, what makes this technology particularly attractive is it is less volatile, which means it can store more energy in a given area than existing lithium-ion batteries. That’s a very big deal.

“From a flammability and safety standpoint, they should be much safer,” said Lei Cheng, chemist at Argonne National Laboratory. “As a result, you don’t need sophisticated battery management to monitor the temperature. But longevity is an unknown. As of now, there is no data because no one has made a complete device. What we’ve seen so far in existing lithium ion batteries is that the cathode eventually loses activity. The same thing is likely to happen with solid state batteries.”

Other issues still need to be addressed, as well. So far, there has been no economic incentive to effectively recycle these batteries, and there is no model in place to share energy across a grid. So even if solid state Li-ion batteries are commercialized, the challenge is moving around that energy across a grid and compensating the generators of that stored electricity in a reasonable manner.

Nevertheless, progress is essential in order to start reversing the trajectory and velocity of climate change. Batteries are a key component in that chain, and this is where the biggest breakthroughs need to occur. So far, however, this is moving painfully slowly.



2 comments

Leslie Larson says:

The problem is not the battery problem. Everybody ignores the real issue – over population of the planet. That is where we should be placing our resources, not fueling the problem.

Tanj Bennett says:

We are over-populated only if we use too many resources. If we use resources better, we can support the population now and for the future.

The suggestion that we need fewer people is violent and destructive. We can and will live better, all of us.

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