Leading the charge

Researchers are busy developing powerful new batteries to propel us into a fossil-free future.

In its heyday, the lithium-ion battery was truly transformational. In a single leap, it offered twice as much energy and usage time as any other battery on the market, reports Science News. Without it, we probably would have not witnessed the smartphone invasion.

But lithium ion technology was only meant for small devices, not cars or other vehicles. So it cannot do away with our dependency on fossil fuels, including gasoline engines. With a more powerful battery, however, cars could become completely electric; so might airplanes sometime in the future. And power grids could be modernized to store electricity produced by green energy sources. “Fortunately, like their Energizer mascot, battery researchers never rest,” writes Science News. Currently, dozens of new battery principles and designs are being explored.

A lithium-sulfur solution offers great hope for vehicles. It is much lighter than lithium-ion yet stores four to five times more energy, extending an electric car’s range up to 500 miles on a single charge. But lithium and sulfur get lost in every charge-discharge cycle, shortening the battery’s life. The use of nanotubes could block that depletion and deliver a battery lasting through many more — maybe even thousands — of cycles.

The most promising advance is a lithium-air design that could deliver as much useful energy as gasoline. It uses oxygen taken in from the atmosphere to drive the chemical reaction that produces electricity. But lithium batteries are hard to recharge, losing power during the process. And heat is generated during the chemical reaction, reducing energy storage capacity and life span. However, new containment strategies to encase oxygen and lithium in tiny glasslike particles promise to curb energy loss and heat buildup.

By the end of 2017 we might witness the introduction of prototype lithium-sulfur batteries, and possibly others, with original formulas. But it will take another five to 10 years before they make their way into consumers’ hands.