Lithium-ion batteries are a big part of normal, everyday life for many consumers. Mobile phones, laptop computers, and electric and hybrid vehicles are all powered by lithium-ion batteries that allow us to unplug and roam freely with our electronic devices.
Conventional Lithium ion batteries, the rechargeable cells what power everything from phones to Priuses, generate current by shuttling positive lithium ions between microscopically thin sheets of carbon graphite located at each electrode. But as these sheets age, their capacity and discharge performance degrades. This is especially true in the new generation of lithium-silicon cells (silicon replacing toxic cobalt as the battery's anode)—the mechanical stress of accepting and discharging electrons causes these silicon sheets to crack over time.
And that’s just the way it has been; when electronics lose power, the quick fix is to reach for the charger, plug it into the wall, and juice it up. Fully charged!
The lithium-ion battery has been used for the same basic applications since its inception, but not until recently has this battery been applied more industriously—as a back-up battery for heavy machinery, electrical systems, vehicles, and so on.
The main concern, and the reason the lithium-ion battery is not used even more extensively, is its unpredictability. There are still questions that need to be answered before it is used without the hesitation it presently receives.
Leading aircraft manufacturer Boeing recently demonstrated just how difficult it is to transition the usage of a lithium-ion battery into a large-scale undertaking.
In 2012, European plane manufacturer Airbus planned to release the A350 airliner for service—Airbus’ answer to Boeing’s 787 Dreamliner and a $15 billion endeavor.
But Boeing’s Dreamliner began experiencing problems with its own lithium-ion battery—a fire on a parked 787 and an in-flight incident during a Japanese flight. Airbus decided to drop the lithium-ion battery after the incidents, Reuters reports.
“We want to mature the lithium-ion technology but we are making this decision today to protect the A350’s entry-into-service schedule,” an Airbus spokeswoman said in a Reuters report.
Instead, a traditional nickel-cadmium battery will be used—a model that is proven and will ensure the A350 is ready to commence service in 2014 as expected. This will alleviate uncertainty and prevent any further delays in the A350 schedule.
But battery technologies aren’t meeting the needs of consumers, both in performance and cost, and while lithium-ion batteries are ahead of the pack, the field remains very competitive as industry advancements are made.
The United States, in particular, is a hotbed of battery innovation that is nurtured by both private investment and strong support from the U.S. government. As of 2012, the U.S. government had 39 different battery and energy storage related research programs managed by six different agencies ranging from the Department of Energy (DOE) to the Department of Defense (DOD). All told, these 39 programs have invested roughly $1.3 billion from 2009 to 2012. Worldwide, according to the report, the market for grid-scale advanced batteries will receive nearly $30 billion in investment through 2020.
Research includes that at the University of Southern California, where researchers have completely discarded silicon sheets found in lithium-ion batteries and replaced them with silicon nano-tubes that perform the same function without breaking down and losing capacity, Gizmodo reports.
A provisional patent indicates that this battery could infiltrate the market in as few as two years.
A leading manufacturer and proponent of the lithium-ion battery is K2 Energy Solution, Inc. K2 contends that not all lithium-ion batteries are the same, and with the advent of its lithium iron phosphate cathode technology, great strides can be taken in the aerospace industry and other world markets.
Johnnie Stoker, Ph.D., CEO of K2 Energy Solutions said to The Sacramento Bee:
"We've taken things a step further by actually changing the nature of the material itself. In the case of our batteries, by physically changing the cathode material we have created an environment where both the likelihood of a hazard, and the severity of an event if one occurs, is reduced."
The biggest thing standing in the way of progressions in energy is the development of dependable power storage. Once that is achieved—once a cell phone lasts for a week at a time instead of mere hours or a solar plant can store up excess energy—the sky is the limit.