The Lithium ion battery has made our modern phones, laptops, and electric cars possible. The secret is its ability to cram a lot of power into a tiny package, but for its inventor John B Goodenough, that wasn’t good enough. Nearly 40 years after he helped create a battery that would change the world, Goodenough and researchers at the University of Texas at Austin have announced they’ve invented a new battery that sounds too good to be true. Goodenough has a few issues with his old lithium ion battery. It’s still too weak, too expensive, and has the pesky habit of exploding from time to time. If a battery is charged too quickly, lithium tends to slowly build up through the liquid electrolyte in long thin whiskers called dendrites. If the dendrites get long enough to connect the positive and negative electrodes of the battery, they can cause a short and you’ve got a surprise fireworks show in your pants. So for the last few years Goodenough has wanted to make a battery with a solid electrolyte instead of a liquid one.
Two years ago he found the research of Portuguese physicist Maria Helena Braga. Braga and a colleague had invented a glass electrolyte, which means no dendrites, no shorts, no pants on fire. Braga and Goodenough have been working together in Austin ever since and the new battery they’ve come up with is unlike anything anyone’s seen before. Along with the new glass electrolyte, the electrodes -that is the positive and negative ends of the battery- are something entirely different.
In a lithium ion battery the positive electrode is made of a lithium metal oxide and the negative side is made of a porous carbon. When you charge it, lithium ions grab electrons and move through the electrolyte to the carbon. When you discharge it, the lithium ions shuffle back, but the electrons they had don’t make the return trip. They flow through your device instead, providing power. But this new battery doesn’t rely on storing ions in a lattice on one side, instead the metal from the negative side travels across the electrolyte and coats the positive side, creating a thin layer on top. And that’s got some people scratching their heads. According to our understanding of conventional batteries, it’s important that the two electrodes are different materials, that’s where the voltage comes from.
Remember the old potato batteries you made as a kid? Stick a piece of copper in one side, and zinc in the other, and you’ve got a battery because electrons flow from the zinc to the copper through your clock or GLaDOS or whatever. If you stuck zinc and zinc, or copper and copper, nothing would happen. Likewise with this new battery, once the positive side is coated with metal from the negative side, the voltage should drop to zero. So the fact that this battery even works is confusing other top battery experts. It seems to be generating something from nothing, which is a big no no according to the laws of thermodynamics. But according to Goodenough, it doesn’t just work, it works spectacularly well.
Compared to current batteries it can hold 3 to 10 times the charge, can be recharged in minutes instead of hours, has a lifespan of over a thousand cycles, and doesn’t go boom in your back pocket. It can be cheaper to make since it works with low cost sodium as well as lithium, and can operate in temperatures from -20 degrees celsius up to 60 degrees. This is exactly the sort of battery that would make an electric car a true replacement for a gasoline powered one. It’s the sort of thing that would be hailed as a monumental achievement. Or a hoax. But it’s hard to argue with Goodenough’s credibility, I mean, this is the guy who helped invent the modern lithium ion battery powered world, he’s effectively the Li-ion King.
His colleagues don’t believe he and Braga are pulling a fast one, heck they’ve even applied for a patent. And I checked and the paper wasn’t published on April 1st. So maybe this crazy battery works for some other reason we have yet to figure out. Or maybe Goodenough’s explanation that the plating is too thin to drop the voltage is correct. For something this promising with this kind of name behind it, more research is definitely needed. So do you think the new battery is the real deal or Goodenough is having one over on us? Let us know in the comments and don’t forget to subscribe. All I know is a battery that lasts 3 times longer and takes minutes to charge sounds amazing, but if I had practical wireless charging I wouldn’t actually need it. Trace covers Disney’s latest crack at it here. One more thing… We got nominated for a Webby Award for sending a VR camera to the Edge of Space, and you can help us win! All you have to do is go to vote dot webbyawards dot com and search for Seeker.
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