A Canadian utility company says it will try to commercialise 2019 Nobel Prize winner John Goodenough's controversial fast-charging, non-flammable glass battery.
Goodenough is best known as part of the team that invented the rechargeable lithium-ion battery during the 1970s and '80s. The team, which also includes British-American chemist M Stanley Whittingham and Japan's Akira Yoshino, were awarded the Nobel Prize in chemistry last year.
The technology they developed remains mostly unchanged today. Most of today's consumer electronics contain the same core battery components as when Sony first introduced them in 1991. The battery's positive side is a lithium-cobalt-oxide cathode, developed by Goodenough; its negative side is a carbon anode, pioneered by Yoshino; and its electrolyte – which connects the cathode and the anode – is liquid, usually lithium salts in organic solvents, such as ethylene carbonate, dimethyl carbonate, or diethyl carbonate.
That lithium-ion battery in your phone or car? It has just won three chemists the Nobel PrizeREAD MORE
But lithium-ion batteries have some serious drawbacks. The electrolyte is flammable, for one thing. If the battery is charged too quickly, the anode grows metal whiskers called dendrites, which can pass through the liquid electrolyte and shorten the life of the battery or, in some cases, short circuit it and cause it to catch fire.
Goodenough's new battery – co-developed with Maria Helena Braga of the University of Porto, Portugal, and described in a paper published in 2016 – is a solid-state battery that uses a lithium-glass electrolyte with a conductivity similar to a liquid electrolyte, and a lithium or sodium metal anode that does not produce dendrites.
This means it is not only safer – the lithium glass is not flammable – but more reliable. The new battery can be charged in a matter of minutes rather than hours and can be charged and discharged 23,000 times – significantly more than, say, the typical electric car battery, which holds about 1,000 cycles. This is because the lithium or sodium-doped glass gives the battery a higher dielectric constant than the volatile organic liquid electrolyte in lithium-ion batteries.
The researchers are keen on a sodium, rather than lithium, anode because it can be sourced from the world's seawater. Lithium supplies, by comparison, rely on dodgy mining operations in a few South American countries.
Goodenough and Braga have even claimed in a 2018 paper that the battery's capacity to store energy increases over more than 300 charge-discharge cycles, rather than decrease as all other battery technologies do. Critics have been understandably sceptical.
Braga told The Register this is because the glass electrolyte in their battery is a ferroelectric material, meaning its polarisation can change in the presence of an applied electric field. As the battery cycles between charges and discharges, the material aligns itself to the direction of the electric field (internal to the battery), increasing the capacity of the battery.
She added: "Locally, at the interface with the negative electrode, a negative capacitance capacitor forms, decreasing the voltage of the association [between the] double layer capacitor/negative capacitance capacitor. But, as the fermi levels must remain aligned, the voltage of the double layer capacitor must be kept constant, and more cations diffuse to the interface, increasing the capacity of the cell and eventually the voltage."
"So you have two competing phenomena: one is the optimisation of the ferroelectric material; the other is the degradation due to the chemical reaction. At a certain point the entropy wins. But before that, we have the optimisation of the ferroelectrics," she said.
"This is nothing new. It's a process that happens in many other phenomena in nature. The human brain works very similarly. At a certain point we are overcome by entropy and we die. But before that our brains cells are constantly realigning."
This is not the first time Goodenough's ideas have met resistance. He has said that when he first co-developed the lithium-ion battery, almost nobody in the battery or consumer electronics industries took him seriously. It was only when Sony took his patent and commercialised it into a portable product that anyone paid attention. Today they go in everything from mobile phones to tablets, laptops and electric cars.
Goodenough reckons that solid-state batteries could become commercially successful within the next five to 10 years. The University of Texas at Austin (UT), which owns the patents, said it is working with "numerous companies", including battery, car and chemical makers, to commercialise the technology.
Hydro-Québec takes over from where Sony left off. Canada's largest electricity producer first announced the plans last month. It hopes to have its commercialised glass battery ready within two years.
The deal allows Hydro-Québec to synthesise materials, build battery cells, test the cells' performance, and check whether the patented material formulations are viable.
"We believe there will be a significant development work and testing required before Hydro-Québec will know whether a product can be manufactured and how such a product might perform compared to existing Li-ion battery cells," said Les Nichols, the director of the UT's Office for Technology Commercialization in an emailed statement sent to us.
The company's research and development arm, the Center of Excellence in Transportation Electrification, has been collaborating with Goodenough and his parent institution, the University of Texas at Austin, for 25 years.
It has already developed Goodenough's lithium iron phosphate battery, which uses iron instead of cobalt. The battery provides a longer life cycle and a more constant discharge voltage, meaning, unlike other battery technologies, it can deliver virtually full power until it is discharged.
"We are very pleased that Dr Goodenough's team is reiterating its confidence in Hydro-Québec by choosing us to bring their technology to market," the center's general director, Karim Zaghib, said in a statement to El Reg.
If successful, Hydro-Québec plans to work with battery manufacturers to produce the new battery. UT would receive a share of revenues from resulting commercial products.
They are not alone in pursuing the new technology. Panasonic, which develops lithium-ion cells for Tesla, and several other car makers – including BMW, Honda, Hyundai, Nissan and Toyota – are developing their own solid-state technologies. Hydro-Québec has said it is considering a number of options for its own technology, but its current focus is on the electric vehicle (EV) market.
Battery technology is especially important to the automotive industry as it pushes for electrification. Some industry watchers estimate that EVs will account for nearly 15 per cent of the global total by 2025. Car makers are spending big to make it happen – a survey by Reuters last January put the industry's total planned EV-related spending worldwide, including batteries, at around $300bn over the next five to 10 years.
But, as with many products, the technology will start big and expensive, before trickling down to small and comparatively affordable personal tech items.
Braga reckoned the new battery could be a game changer, but is tight-lipped on whether we'll be finding them in our phones in the near future.
"These things don't depend on just scientists. The industry sometimes picks up products not only because they're good or bad. It's all about timing." ®