Technology seems to advance at a mind-boggling speed these days. It seems just minutes after I upgrade to the latest smartphone, a better, faster model has already hit the market. By the time I learn all the shortcuts and hot buttons to my new laptop, it’s nearly obsolete. Yet in the last 50 or so years, very little has happened to advance battery technology. The standard lithium-ion battery is used in everything from tablets to electric cars to kids’ toys. Given how volatile they still are (as we all learned from the great exploding Samsung Galaxy Note fiasco of 2016), you’d think that someone would have found a viable alternative by now. And even if spontaneous combustion doesn’t happen to deter you, what about the fact that battery life is one of the most widely-expressed consumer complaints when it comes to mobile devices? I feel utterly naked if I leave the house without my smartphone; and Nomophobia, the fear of having your phone die or lose service, is now a very real thing (I’m not kidding – look it up). So, Science, I ask you – what are you doing to save my (gadget’s) life?
John Goodenough, a professor at the University of Texas, is widely credited as the inventor of the lithium-ion battery. Oddly enough, he may now also be the man responsible for its replacement – a whopping 37 years later, at just 94 years young. In the nearly four decades that have passed since the battery’s inception, he has never stopped working to make it better. Despite its widespread popularity and use, he still never felt it was "good enough. So along with Maria Helena Braga, senior research fellow at the Cockrell School, and their team, a low-cost solid state battery eventually came to fruition; one which was far safer than its lithium-ion predecessor. Not only is the new battery technology cheaper to make and safer to use, but it also stores thrice as much energy and takes mere minutes to charge, rather than several hours. Plus, it’s equipped to sustain a far greater number of charge and discharge cycles than the typical lithium-ion battery.
So what is it? Well to start, the new battery uses glass electrolytes instead of liquid. This is the key to its incombustibility – whereas liquid lithium-ion batteries can form dendrites (whisker-like strands of metal that can cause the short-circuiting and explosions that products from Apple and Samsung were recently plagued with), glass electrolytes will not. Additionally, the all-solid-state battery uses an alkali-metal anode, which increases energy density. This results in more charge cycles, longer battery life, and much faster charging periods. Plus, the new technology could actually open some new doors for scientists and researchers in some of the world’s Arctic regions, since it is able to function in sub-zero temperatures. And to top all that off, it’s even good for the environment. Since the lithium is replaced with sodium as a key material, one of its main components can essentially be harvested from seawater. This, in turn, helps further drive the cost down.
Only time will tell if the idea is deemed to be both practical and scalable. When the lithium-ion battery was first invented, it took nearly a decade to enter the mass production phase of its life cycle. But at least there is hope on the horizon for a better-powered future, as Goodenough and his team work with battery makers to test the invention in real-world devices.
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