Have you ever tried to get a big gang of people out the door in the morning?
Everyone wakes up at their own time, takes their shower at their own time, has their food and their snack. Nobody’s in much of a hurry because they know there’s always going to be someone slower than them.
And there’s always one guy who holds up the group. The one who insists on making a cup of coffee and spends the morning chatting.
In the technology world, batteries are like the annoying guy who’s last to get ready.
Computer processors, electric cars, wind power and solar panels are improving at an incredible rate. But they’re not being used because batteries have barely improved in the last few decades.
If batteries improved at the same rate as other technologies we’d have electric cars, solar powered homes, and our phones would be smaller and faster.
Bad batteries are holding up the technology industry.
The holy grail
We’re still using lithium-ion rechargeable batteries, which were first introduced by Sony in 1991. Lithium-ion batteries power smartphones and laptops. Tesla’s electric cars basically work by stringing a bunch of lithium-ion laptop batteries together.
We’re not stuck with lithium-ion batteries for want of trying though. Researchers have been trying to come up with better batteries for decades. Every May for the last nine years, the US Department of Energy hosts a symposium on the topic called “Beyond Lithium-Ion”. It’s telling that the name hasn’t changed.
The American Department of Energy is throwing money at this. It’s currently funding 75 different battery research projects. Ellen Williams, who’s in charge of this initiative, thinks the breakthrough isn’t far away. In an interview with the Guardian, she said they’ve reached the “holy grail” of battery technology – cheap, safe, energy-dense, and small.
There are dozens of new approaches being tried out. There are foam batteries, batteries that use graphene, flow batteries, and batteries with weird new chemistries.
None of these approaches has caught on because making batteries properly requires scale. They need to be produced on a production line using expensive machines. Until they’re produced at scale, it’s difficult to know whether any of these “holy grail” battery technologies can be used commercially.
According to the MIT Technology Review, building a production line to test out these new batteries could cost £377m. And that’s a lot of money when you consider that only £30m a year gets spent on all new, ie non Lithium-Ion, battery research.
Developing batteries is expensive and uncertain
The US Government has funded lots of battery research, and that’s created lots of promising leads. But the thing is, none of the initial research is close to being commercialised. For that to happen, someone needs to bet big money – £377m or so – on building a full scale production line. Only then will they know whether or not the new technology is a lithium-ion killer.
It’s hard for companies to know where to invest their money. Since the costs of developing new technologies is high, and the science is uncertain, they’ve declined to make big investments.
Compare the £30m that’s being invested in new battery technology to the $5bn Tesla is investing in its giant lithium-ion factory. LG and Panasonic are investing similar sums in their own giant lithium-ion factories.
Investors should take note. It’s easy to make the case that we need better battery technology. And there’s lots of research out there that hints at promising new ways to crack the problem. But making a better battery costs a lot of money. Backing an unproven battery technology is a good way to get burned!