Batteries, included
June 14, 2019 11:14 PM   Subscribe

The lab of famous battery scientist John Goodenough is working on Lithium batteries that use powdered glass as an electrolyte . One of the great advantages to this construction is reducing the well known risk of lithium battery explosions, which is leading to increasing fires in the scrap industry, and increasing the challenge of recycling.

Despite the explosions, most manufacturers choose Lithium Ion - it's light, energy dense, less toxic than older tech, and at the cheap part of the development cycle. If you can relax those requirements, there are different battery chemistries with different strengths, weaknesses, and environmental impact. Nanofabrication permits batteries out of junkyard brass and iron. Renewable energy (and homeowners that want batteries they can’t kill) have made Edison’s original Nickel Iron batteries and Salt water batteries available again. If you only want to buy batteries once, consider surplus submarine batteries. Or DIY an all iron battery. Or extend the life of lithium batteries with a DIY powerwall

[ previously Nickel iron batteries, previously fires ]
posted by unknown knowns (18 comments total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
They're working on sodium ion batteries, too!
posted by Quackles at 12:09 AM on June 15

The powdered glass reduces the risk of explosion, but on the rare chance they do explode, the shrapnel is ferocious.
posted by fairmettle at 12:25 AM on June 15 [1 favorite]

This is encouraging! I read about Goodenough a couple years ago and was impressed at the description of his continuing to work and strive to find better battery solutions -

Best part of this article is that the implementation (the glass-electrolyte one’s) is not 15-20 years away (yeah, I’m looking at you nuclear fusion) but 2022. Lighter, better working batteries is only a good thing
posted by From Bklyn at 2:32 AM on June 15 [2 favorites]

Goodenough previously.
posted by zamboni at 3:01 AM on June 15 [1 favorite]

For a deep technical response to this saga, I recommend this

Spoiler: very skeptical about how claims are represented.
posted by Glomar response at 5:38 AM on June 15 [5 favorites]

My chemistry teacher back in high school—we're talking mid-80s here—had a remarkably prescient comment that a real challenge of chemistry in the future was going to be the battery.  I don't remember the context, likely explaining the chemistry behind batteries no doubt, but he pointed out that unlike many bits of technology, batteries had never really had a game changing development.  Instead it was just decades of slow, painstaking improvements, and that whoever did radically expand the current storage limit—or even figure out the science that would allow that to happen eventually—was going to be a very popular person/team, because the applications of good battery technology were just enormous.

Don't seem to recall him being too optimistic about the prospects either.  Guess he was right; it's been over thirty years.  And while batteries have definitely gotten much better, there's clearly been no Moore's law scaling over that time or other such crazy leap.
posted by los pantalones del muerte at 6:20 AM on June 15

I feel like I saw a NOVA video about someone doing a lithium battery in a polymer matrix.
posted by kalessin at 6:27 AM on June 15 [1 favorite]

I don't understand how a battery like the first one would in any way violate the laws of thermodynamics, as mentioned in the first linked article. A battery is very obviously not a closed system, and why would it be inconceivable that by repeatedly charging it you could alter its chemical makeup in such a way as to allow it to store more energy than it originally could?
posted by Dumsnill at 6:58 AM on June 15

Most large format batteries have already moved from the more dangerous lithium ion types to lithium iron phosphate (LiFePO4). They are slightly less energy dense but much safer. I just finished converting a boat to electric drive and I used surplus LiFePO4 s from a Smith Electric Truck. You can get them to smoke if you work at it, but very hard to get flame. If you don't stress about getting that last 10% charge, you don't even need a BMS (though that remains a controversial opinion in the diy electric vehicle community).
posted by BeeDo at 7:09 AM on June 15 [5 favorites]

The glass electrolyte battery sounds interesting; from a little bit of reading so far I'm not totally clear whether there's anything controversial about it other than the question of improving charge and that that's not the central improvement of the technology anyway, which if that's the case it sounds like it's probably good news in general for battery tech options. But that's just gawking from someone nowhere near his wheelhouse, so, heh.

I also really enjoyed that short video in the all iron battery link; it's neat to get a little slice of a work in progress and the explanation of where they were so far, what they were running into, and how they were working around that was really approachable.

Nice first post!
posted by cortex at 7:49 AM on June 15 [1 favorite]

The rule of thumb is that engineering claims with a 5 year projection are effectively vaporware. A three-year projection is very promising. Battery performance improvements were linear during a time when computer performance improvements were geometric. It will be interesting to see how this plays out.
posted by ardgedee at 8:40 AM on June 15 [1 favorite]

Battery tech is perhaps the most exciting area to research the woo-science interface. I've been waiting to see which way the Cambridge lithium air cell goes... you might think that lithium air reactions were notably energetic and hard to reverse, especially when they'd burned your house down, but I couldn't possibly comment.
posted by Devonian at 9:14 AM on June 15

Way back in the 30s? Earlier maybe, my grandpa patented and sold a car battery that was Cadmium and nickel, he called the CadNic battery. Patent is likely long expired, but I see that combo being used now for rechargeable. Everything old is new again.
posted by dbmcd at 10:31 AM on June 15

The glass powder is ferroelectric, which means that individual grains have a permanent charge separation, and will therefore tend to line up, like water molecules do, with positive regions next to negative in any externally imposed field.

And when you switch to charging mode, the externally imposed field switches, and it seems to me that individual grains would mechanically flip too, at that time.

Which would mean that they grind against each other and smooth each other out like stream rocks as the number of charging cycles go up, although there would certainly be a plateau, maybe after not that many cycles.

With an initially somewhat polyhedral or even jagged electrolyte powder, you would expect lots of islands in the powder that were resistant to flipping because they were mechanically locked together like 3-D jigsaw puzzle pieces, and those would probably shrink and decline in number over time as the grains ground against each other as they tried to flip, which would be a continuing process as long as the external field was aligned against them.

The decline of those islands (together with smoother particles in general?) would mean lower internal resistance for the battery, which would mean more power delivered to a load of any given resistance, because less power would be dissipated within the battery itself.

Which would in turn mean that the capacity of the battery would increase over time from its initial value.
posted by jamjam at 2:15 PM on June 15 [3 favorites]

When people tell me the problem with lithium ion batteries sometimes venting with flame has anything to do with the relatively small amount of lithium (which isn't even in elemental form, mind) and not the flammable electrolyte it puts me instantly in "find the woo" mode since they are either deeply confused about what it is we are discussing or are talking out their ass.

Lithium primary cells are susceptible to lithium fires because they are largely made up of metallic lithium, which does exciting things when you get it hot. The rechargeable ones that are in wide use do not contain significant amounts of metallic lithium. That said, they are certainly energy dense enough to light themselves and things around them on fire, whether there's lithium burning or not.
posted by wierdo at 5:59 PM on June 15

This is an exciting time as battery technology is advancing rapidly. My understanding is that Ionic Materials (the company featured in the NOVA video linked above) remains in the lead, but there are lots of potential competitors to that technology. For those interested in a truly remarkable video, see Ionic Matarials’ battery shot with bullets and then continuing to work here.
posted by haiku warrior at 7:02 PM on June 15

I thought this was going to be about C64 word processors!
posted by rfs at 8:18 PM on June 15

It's interesting that an electric car's battery is quite heavy, where each 20 kWh extra in capacity seems to add about 200-300 lbs. Having a lighter and safer battery would do a lot for getting more electric cars into use (and hopefully getting gasoline cars off the road), from a larger battery (of the same weight) offering greater range between charges, to simply reducing the risk from conventional battery fires...
posted by They sucked his brains out! at 12:12 AM on June 16

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