If you’re reading this on a phone or a tablet, chances are that at some level you’re worried about battery drain.
Portable power is the giant albatross weighing down mobile gadgets. We limp through our days worrying whether our charge will run out before the next time we get to a plug. It’s the biggest bugaboo holding back the electric car.
But what if a guy, the same braniac who invented the lithium-ion battery that makes your gadget possible, hit on something better?
What if his solution didn’t rely on volatile and liquid lithium, but instead replaced it with glass and sodium, and that charged faster and wouldn’t catch on fire?
And what if — this is getting even better — it could pack three times the stored energy in the same cubic inch, charged faster and would be cheaper to produce?
Suddenly you’re charging your phone every second or third day. The price of electric cars drops to compete with internal combustion models. That same, cheaper electric vehicle that might otherwise have a range of 100 miles could cruise 300 miles between plug-ins (with the not-insignificant added advantage of working well in sub-zero temperatures) and be ready for the next 300 in the time it takes you to wolf down a Quarter Pounder.
Too good to be true?
Quite possibly. But partly because 94-year-old John Goodenough is behind the idea, along with Maria Braga and a research team at the Cockrell School of Engineering at the University of Texas, serious people take the idea of a new super battery seriously.
Such a solid-state battery — made largely of sodium taken from seawater rather than lithium mined in South America and China — would make mobile energy storage more efficient and far cheaper.
There are skeptics who think the super-efficiency promised in the batteries smacks of perpetual motion, a violation of the laws of thermodynamics.
The key difference in the batteries comes from used solid glass electrolytes, which sit between the positive cathode and the negative anode, making possible the chemical reaction that produces electricity.
“Goodenough’s long career has defined the modern battery industry. Researchers assume that his measurements are exact. But no one outside of Goodenough’s own group appears to understand his new concept,” wrote Quartz Media. “The battery community is loath to openly challenge the paper, but some come close. ‘If anyone but Goodenough published this, I would be, well, it’s hard to find a polite word,’ Daniel Steingart, a professor at Princeton, told Quartz.”
It may also be that the precise specifications that make the glass batteries perform in laboratory tests won’t be practical at the commercial level.
In the paper published in the journal Energy & Environmental Science with their findings, Goodenough and his fellow researchers go out of their way to describe the stakes:
“Reduction of the dependence of modern society on fossil fuels is urgent. Electric power from wind and solar energy can be stored in a rechargeable battery.
“What is needed to reduce greenhouse gases is a safe, low-cost rechargeable battery with a high volumetric energy density and long cycle life for powering an all-electric road vehicle that is competitive in performance and in convenience with today’s automobiles.”