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Batteries: Exciting Developments Around the Corner

17 Feb 2016 by Teresa Meek

Where would we be without batteries?

Your cell phone, camera, TV remote, videogame controller — all would cease to function. Rockets and military subs would stop dead in their tracks.

It’s enough to cause a heart attack — with no defibrillator to save you.

Despite the wonders batteries have achieved, our main interaction with them is to complain. The cell phone died again. The smoke alarm blasted us out of bed at 3 a.m. — and we had to change the batteries.

But these problems only show how important batteries are. And the short-life issue? There’s a solution coming around the bend.

So let’s take one day of the year — Battery Day, February 18 — to celebrate the battery and marvel at innovations that could soon transform it beyond recognition.

An old technology

We think of the battery as a modern invention, but in the 1930s, scientists discovered a 2,000-year-old clay jar in Baghdad containing an iron rod and a copper tube that just might have been an early prototype.

In the Western world, scientists experimented with electricity in the 1700s and 1800s, creating the first rechargeable battery in 1836. Later, the nickel-cadmium battery, invented in Sweden and refined by Thomas Edison, was used for most of the 20th century.

In the late 1940s and early 1950s, Eveready and Duracell came up with the alkaline battery commonly used today.

In the 1970s, lithium ion batteries were introduced and, because they’re light, were adopted widely for use in consumer products. These are the ones you swear at when your cell phone quits.

But that may not be true for much longer.

The future: smaller, flexible, much more durable

Scientists at Rice University are working on microsupercapacitors — technically not batteries, but tiny graphene energy-storers that charge 50 times faster than batteries and discharge much more slowly. Manufacturers have been hesitant to try microsupercapacitors because they’re so expensive to make, but the Rice scientists are using lasers to make them out of plastic, which is cheap. They believe the day is coming when they will replace batteries entirely.

In the meantime, other scientists at MIT, working with Samsung, are developing solid-state batteries that they say could last a lifetime with virtually no degradation. And there’s no risk of fire, as there is with lithium-ion (li-on) batteries. Stay tuned to see if Elon Musk finds a way to pack them into Teslas.

But don’t give up on li-on batteries just yet. Pebble's new smartwatch has one that it says lasts seven days without a recharge, leaving its Apple competitor — with an 18-hour charge that seemed like a miracle when it came out less than a year ago — in the dust.

Scientists at Arizona State University are experimenting with origami-like “stretchable” li-on batteries that can be folded to fit in your pocket. Scientists at theUniversity of Illinois are working on a clip-on microbattery that’s so tiny you wouldn’t even need to fold it up.

A number of other battery technologies are being developed to make wearable devices more practical, including thin-film batteries, pouch batteries and graphene batteries.

Transforming solar

Solar energy has been the very next thing for a very long time. While getting energy from the sun would solve a lot of the world’s problems, solar batteries have been plagued by high costs, inefficiencies and uneven distribution problems.

That could change if the liquid-metal batteries being developed at MIT work out. They can store power for less than $500 a kilowatt-hour, less than a third the cost of current technologies. Better storage capacity could also compensate for the intermittent nature of solar or wind power. Donald Sadoway, the scientist behind the batteries, calls them “the missing link to renewable energy” and believes they could eventually replace the power grid.