The Hidden Science Making Batteries Better, Cheaper and Everywhere
May 3, 2021 8:42 AM   Subscribe

How Batteries Work: Inside The Batteries Powering Your Car, Phone and More - "From electric vehicles to your cell phone, lithium ion batteries have evolved quickly over the past few years. Bloomberg Green charted the evolution of their makeup and how they work." (Bloomberg: The Next Generation of Batteries | How a New Generation of Batteries Will Change the World)

Lex in depth: a solid case for the next generation of batteries - "Solid state batteries are safer and use fewer raw materials. Are they the answer to technology's power problem and a threat to Tesla's dominance?" (FT)

Inside QuantumScape's Secret Battery Lab and Its $20 Billion Breakthrough - "QuantumScape says its technology is ready to move from the lab to VW's dealerships. But this secretive startup is very familiar with failure." (Bloomberg)

Elon Musk's Comments Show How QuantumScape Might Never Succeed - "Assuming that the final QuantumScape cell uses 50 layers, and 2,500 are needed to power a single-vehicle (Tesla's Model 3 has 3,700 cells with 50 to 100 layers), then per vehicle, QuantumScape will have to manufacture 125,000 layers of the separator."

Ex-Tesla CTO JB Straubel's Redwood Materials tackles battery recycling - "Former Tesla CTO and the mastermind behind many of Tesla's core technologies, JB Straubel, started Redwood Materials in 2017 to help address the need for more raw materials and to solve the problem of e-waste. The company recycles end-of-life batteries and then supplies battery makers and auto companies with raw materials in short supply as EV production surges around the world."

World's largest compressed air grid 'batteries' will store up to 10GWh - "California is set to be home to two new compressed-air energy storage facilities – each claiming the crown for the world's largest non-hydro energy storage system. Developed by Hydrostor, the facilities will have an output of 500 MW and be capable of storing 4 GWh of energy."
posted by kliuless (19 comments total) 35 users marked this as a favorite
 
Fascinating stuff that will hopefully continue to create increasingly efficient batteries. I wish there was more awareness and more options in place to recycle batteries and other e-waste. Some of the big-box retailers here (and assuming it is nation wide) recycles the majority of smaller batteries (toys, cell phone, laptop, power tools), but it's not always known.
posted by Hollowearthtrip at 9:01 AM on May 3 [1 favorite]


Apparently Lithium is in short supply, but there is no recycling process. I find this frustrating and baffling.
posted by theora55 at 9:37 AM on May 3 [10 favorites]




Great stuff. Read/watched a couple of articles and will get the rest a bit later.

Side story: A friend of my in airfreight supply chain logistics worked at Tesla. He told me the story, from the air freight side, about learning about how stacked batteries form an energy loop and start to get really hot. This was a discovery, early on by the freight side of the house, as they determined how to ship the batteries to Europe. They had to adjust their crating and spacing to make sure, as he put it, "airplanes don't blow up over the Atlantic." I'd imagine it was all pretty unnerving. The science of batteries was known elsewhere in Tesla but not on the freight shop floor.
posted by zerobyproxy at 10:10 AM on May 3 [2 favorites]


Seems like there may be hope on the lithium recycling front.
posted by pashdown at 10:15 AM on May 3 [2 favorites]


I got the typical Nokia phone in 2000 and that was the first small step into the recharging hell I live in now...

Like a modern-day Fortunato I see myself being bricked in with each new portable black rectangle I acquire . . .
posted by Heywood Mogroot III at 1:17 PM on May 3 [3 favorites]


Hi ! I work in R&D for a company that makes cylindrical Li-ion batteries (not Tesla, though). Happy to answer any questions! I haven't had time to go through any of the links in the FPP but can come back if there are specific questions for those.

He told me the story, from the air freight side, about learning about how stacked batteries form an energy loop and start to get really hot.

Li-ion batteries store a lot of energy-- you can think of them in many ways like a jerry can of gasoline. The risk with shipping a pallet of cells is called thermal runaway. They won't heat up just sitting there, but if one cell were to develop a short circuit (when the two terminals of the battery accidentally touch, or if they were dropped hard enough to dent the cell), it will heat up quickly when all of the energy is released, which if untreated could cause a fire in the worst case.

If this spreads to neighbouring cells, it can cause all of them to heat up. It's a similar problem when dealing with Li-ion cells in an EV pack-- propagation can lead to bad times if unchecked. A big consideration for cell manufacturing is understanding/minimizing risk for these sorts of events.
posted by beepbeepboopboop at 1:24 PM on May 3 [15 favorites]


Apparently Lithium is in short supply, but there is no recycling process.

Check kliuless's Redwood Materials link.
posted by flabdablet at 7:18 PM on May 3 [2 favorites]


Liquid metal batteries and vanadium redox flow batteries are both much better suited than lithium batteries to building fixed installations for applications like grid peak shaving and frequency maintenance, where size and weight matter much less than high capacity, low maintenance, inherent safety and easy recycling.

Even so, lithium is probably going to dominate energy storage for a long time because, as Amory Lovins predicted in the 1970s, most of the storage connected to the grid is going to end up being what's embodied in the electric vehicle fleet. Obviously none of these batteries will be connected to the grid all of the time, but once charging outlets have become standard equipment in almost every parking bay, enough of them will be grid-connected most of the time that even just their aggregated owner-defined excess capacity will constitute a distributed energy storage reserve that dwarfs all the others. Making this work is largely a matter of standardising protocols for spot price energy purchases and sales.
posted by flabdablet at 7:50 PM on May 3 [1 favorite]


Consumer vehicle-to-grid appears to still be not much more than vaporware, and I suspect it always will be. You need to pay people a *lot* to allow their cars to be used in this way, and dedicated grid-scale storage will only get cheaper.

I'm dubious about commercial fleets too.
posted by grahamparks at 2:09 AM on May 4 [1 favorite]


Li-ion batteries store a lot of energy-- you can think of them in many ways like a jerry can of gasoline. The risk with shipping a pallet of cells is called thermal runaway. They won't heat up just sitting there, but if one cell were to develop a short circuit (when the two terminals of the battery accidentally touch, or if they were dropped hard enough to dent the cell), it will heat up quickly when all of the energy is released, which if untreated could cause a fire in the worst case.

If this spreads to neighbouring cells, it can cause all of them to heat up. It's a similar problem when dealing with Li-ion cells in an EV pack-- propagation can lead to bad times if unchecked. A big consideration for cell manufacturing is understanding/minimizing risk for these sorts of events.


I assume this is why it took the fire department something like 9 hours to put of the fire in the latest big news driverless Tesla crash.
posted by srboisvert at 3:29 AM on May 4


Thanks for the heads-up, flabdablet, that's excellent news.

Asploding Dells
were a thing for a while.
posted by theora55 at 6:04 AM on May 4


Redwood materials extracts the non-lithium portions of lithium batteries. Eg, nickel, cobalt, and copper. It is not at all unique in doing this, there are much larger plants in China (probably also much more polluting).

I researched this before converting my house bank to lithium, and as far as I could find, there's no lithium recycling going on anywhere. It's simply so much cheaper to mine it in Argentina or whatever.

I hope this will change within in 10-15 years when all the current generation of larger lithium batteries is aging out. But have my doubts. Compare with lead acid batteries, which are 95% recycled in the US.
posted by joeyh at 6:36 AM on May 4 [2 favorites]


and as far as I could find, there's no lithium recycling going on anywhere

At 9:37 in the Redwood Materials video linked above:
Redwood's techniques recover more than 95% of a battery's nickel, cobalt, aluminum, graphite, and more than 80% of a battery's lithium.
So yeah, there's more than four times as much lithium wasted as anything else, but 80% recovery is a lot more than nothing.
posted by flabdablet at 8:08 AM on May 4 [1 favorite]


There's also a shitload of lithium in the sea. Its concentration is low but the sea is huge, and ways of tapping that resource are already under development.
posted by flabdablet at 8:17 AM on May 4


Oh that's excellent news. Stories about Redwood just a year or 2 ago did not indicate they were recovering any lithium. Here's another cite of the 80% figure: https://www.designnews.com/materials/ex-tesla-cto-straubel-recycling-batteries-redwood-materials
posted by joeyh at 8:51 AM on May 4




I assume this is why it took the fire department something like 9 hours to put of the fire in the latest big news driverless Tesla crash.

Yes, definitely. Lithium fires can be very dangerous and don't respond well to conventional fire fighting techniques. Lithium reacts very strongly with water, for example. The fire can also produce toxic byproducts due to the chemicals inside the cells.

Worth noting that EV packs have a lot of design features to prevent this from happening, and in general studies have suggested EVs are slightly safer vs internal combustion engines.
posted by beepbeepboopboop at 12:14 PM on May 4 [1 favorite]


Consumer vehicle-to-grid appears to still be not much more than vaporware, and I suspect it always will be. You need to pay people a *lot* to allow their cars to be used in this way, and dedicated grid-scale storage will only get cheaper.

I'm dubious about commercial fleets too.


One cool thing is that the cells in many EVs are projected to have useful capacity after the car EOL. These cells could be very useful for grid storage, and there are a number of companies looking into this already.
posted by beepbeepboopboop at 12:17 PM on May 4


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