Potentially electrifying development in battery technology

These days I’m a bit wary about new developments in renewable energy that have shown up in a lab. There are a lot of these that come out on a regular basis, and a vast majority of them have yet to actually be put to any practical use. They’re fun to check out, and it can be encouraging to see the things we could do, if we had a national effort to change our energy infrastructure, but it’s also frustrating, because it seems like most of these developments don’t really go anywhere, or if they are going somewhere, it’s not fast enough.

Another problem I have is that I don’t know enough about electronics, physics, and chemistry to make a concrete assessment of the practicality of any given technology, so I’ve gotten caught up in pipe dreams in the past. I don’t know which this is, but if it pans out, it’s a seriously big deal.

PBS reports that the scientist behind the lithium-ion battery has published the design of a lithium-glass battery that represents a significant improvement in performance across the spectrum:

The new technology not only triples the energy density of lithium-ion, it also recharges in minutes, survives thousands charging cycles, operates across a wide range of temperatures (-4˚ F to 140˚ F), and won’t catch fire.

 This is a big deal, but it may just be the tip of the iceberg. One of the big concerns with current battery technology is the resources that go into making the batteries. While lithium isn’t the least abundant substance on the planet, it’s not the most abundant either. We could certainly dramatically increase the amount of lithium-based batteries in use, and not run out, but it’s not clear that we could use it to store all the energy we need to replace fossil fuels.

Goodenough, however, isn’t just offering us a better lithium-based battery:

With a little more development, Goodenough, a professor of engineering at the University of Texas, thinks they could reliably replace lithium with sodium, an abundant element that’s in everything from underground seams of salt to nearly ubiquitous ocean water.

If this bears out, I would argue that there will no longer be any credible objection to renewable energy sources as a viable replacement for fossil fuels.


  1. says

    At a certain point, doesn’t the energy density of a battery become “a grenade”?

    I was reading the other day about a plan to use an old coal mine as a battery. You put water in the bottom, with turbines in the middle and when the sun is shining and the wind is blowing, you use the spare power to pump the water up to the top. When the sun isn’t shining and you need the stored energy, you let the water fall down and drive the turbines. I’m sure there’s efficiency loss out the wazoo but it’s free energy!

  2. says

    Pump storage like you’re talking about is a good one. There are also designs for systems at a household scale, and for pressurized air systems.

    What do you mean by the grenade thing?

  3. DonDueed says

    There are already quite a few “giant battery” reservoirs. There’s one I know of here in Massachusetts. The same turbines that generate the energy are reversed and used as pumps to refill the upper reservoir during off-peak times. It’s a great system for providing peak load power, and even better if you use solar and wind to run the pumps.

    I hope this new battery technology works out. I see claims for such things pretty frequently, but it often turns out that the new idea proves to have a fatal flaw – not always the same one, of course. Any battery technology has to hit a lot of constraints to be viable.

  4. Dunc says

    At a certain point, doesn’t the energy density of a battery become “a grenade”?

    Only if it can be discharged at an extremely high rate. The energy density of gasoline is ten times that of TNT.

  5. KG says

    Marcus Ranum@1,

    “Pumped storage” has been used for decades, although generally on the surface, from a reservoir lower down, to one higher up. As far as old mines are concerned, there are also ideas for using the difference in temperature between the surface and the bottom of the shaft to generate electricity.

  6. EnlightenmentLiberal says

    Question: Does anyone have a good source for “triples the energy density of lithium-ion”. I’ve spent a while looking for a proper source, and every source that I can on google just seems to uncritically repeat the claim that is based on the a news release on the university website. I’ve read the paper, and as far as I can tell, the paper doesn’t make that claim. I’ve found some other (unreliable) sources that suggest that it’s 3x better energy capacity / volume, but barely 20% better energy capacity / weight, which definitely far less impressive for mobile application and especially cars. My (unreliable) sources suggest it’s just an incremental improvement of existing solid electrolyte batteries, and it’s not as special as some news articles are making it out to be. Hell if I know, but this definitely feels like just another vaporware battery tech that promises to fix the intermittency of solar and wind. You see these vaporware battery tech press releases several times a year. And yes, I know that Goodenough is a hugely important name, but it seems that maybe the work was done by someone else and his name was just added to the paper.

    Still, I don’t know. I guess I’ll wait and see.

    Marcus, the only “real” energy storage being used at scale for the grid is pumped water storage.


    it’s not clear that we could use it [lithium batteries] to store all the energy we need to replace fossil fuels.

    No, it’s clear all right – clear that we cannot do so. See here:
    You can do the same sort of simplistic high-school analysis for lithium batteries of all kinds, and you reach the same conclusion that there’s no where near enough readily available lithium, especially under the assumption that energy usage worldwide is going to increase vastly as the rest of the world industrializes and population continues to grow, where it will hopefully plateau around 10 or 11 billion people because of industrialization, emancipation of women, and ready access to contraception.

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