Forward-looking: It may seem like battery technology isn't improving as fast as our many devices, but IBM says the wait is almost over and worthwhile. Researchers are currently testing prototype pouch batteries that can outperform the best batteries we have today, while also being cheaper and safer.
IBM's research arm may have found a way to replace traditional lithium-ion batteries with a new solution that is better and safer in almost every way. The new technology combines quick charging capabilities and low flammability with the distinct advantage of requiring materials that are plentiful and environmentally friendly.
One of the biggest problems faced by today's industry is that demand is increasing faster than our ability to produce reliable batteries for mobile devices, power tools, cars, trucks and even airplanes. Everything is going electric, but the resources to make lithium-ion batteries -- heavy metals like manganese, cobalt, nickel -- require mining, which is harmful for the environment and the workers involved.
IBM researchers say they have a solution that removes the need for nickel and cobalt to build the cathode, as well as a new liquid electrolyte that has a lower chance of igniting when something goes wrong thanks to a higher flash point. There's also a lower chance that these new batteries will form so-called lithium "dendrites" which lead to performance degradation and short circuits.
If the safety features sound good, the performance is even more promising.
Researchers explain they can tailor the new battery for various use cases thanks to its ability to outperform existing lithium-ion batteries. The current prototype pouch battery is able to reach an 80 percent charge in five minutes, and has an energy density of 800 Wh/L, something possible only with a state-of-the-art lithium nickel cobalt aluminum oxide battery.
The new technology also holds potential for grid storage and electric vehicle applications, with a power density exceeding 10,000 W/L, which is better than what can be achieved with traditional battery chemistries.
The longevity story is a little less clear, with IBM claiming "our battery demonstrated hundreds to thousands of cycles with 80 percent retention of its original capacity."
Perhaps the best aspect of this new battery tech is that it's said to be considerably cheaper to manufacture at scale and that it doesn't require the use of conflict minerals. To that end, IBM Research is partnering with companies like Mercedes-Benz R&D, Sidus, and Central Glass.
IBM says the three key materials needed to build the new battery can be extracted from seawater, which is why it's considered less damaging to the environment than terrestrial mining. Experts like MIT professor of materials science Donald Sadoway are skeptical, but IBM's materials innovation manager Young-hye Na is confident it can reach commercial viability in two years, with power tools as one of the first applications.
In the meantime, several startups are emerging from stealth mode with silicon-based enhancements to current lithium-ion batteries and new methods to manufacture them as quickly and cheaply as possible. Whether or not IBM's battery is better, we don't have much longer to wait for it to show up in actual products.