As gadgets shrink and energy demands grow, the challenge of fitting more power into tinier spaces becomes increasingly difficult. It's time for a new battery.
Batteries are something of a miracle — they power a huge part of our lives, yet the best ones work behind the scenes, quietly powering your phone and asking for little more than a few hours of charging a few times per week.
But now, they're so ubiquitous that they have us at their mercy. It's the reason you'll see crowds huddled around power outlets at airports, each person waiting for his or her turn to charge a phone, tablet or laptop. It only takes an hour or so, but what if you only have a minute?
It's time for a new battery. As gadgets shrink and energy demands grow, the challenge of fitting more power into tinier spaces — increasing the energy density, as it's called — becomes increasingly difficult.
Consider Tesla Motors. One of the company's biggest challenges is finding a way to extend the range of its electric vehicles. Tesla's Model S sports sedan, for example, only lasts about 260 miles on a single charge — considerably less than the 420 miles on a gas-fueled Lexus LS.
Tesla CEO Elon Musk claims that a 500-mile charge is technologically feasible, but the size of the required battery built with today's technology would come at a major cost to room and comfort.
This dilemma has driven researchers to look for new materials to use as the basic building blocks for batteries. Kenyon Kluge, a member of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers and a lead engineer at Zero Motorcycles, says some entirely new devices will be coming soon.
"Within the next 5 (to) 10 years, you are going to see a lot of technologies emerging, one topping the next" in terms of energy density, charging speeds, lifespan and safety, Kluge says. "There will be a place in the market for all of these different innovations."
The problem, of course, is cost. "Cool ideas that are expensive won't have any impact," says Donald Sadoway, a professor of materials chemistry at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "It's all about the cost of ownership. That means inventing to the price point of the market."
To do this, Sadoway says, you need two things: cheap, abundant components; and a straightforward design that can be manufactured in low-cost facilities.
Lithium-ion batteries, the current standard used in everything from cameras and smartphones to cars and even spacecraft, meet those demands. But progress is reaching a plateau, and it looks as if significant improvements won't happen until new types of energy cells are commercially viable.
While they aren't technically batteries, supercapacitors could be the next big thing. Such a device could fully charge a smartphone or even an electric car in seconds. Long-distance travel in a battery-powered vehicle would finally be convenient, and you'd never need to huddle around an outlet with your iPhone again.
Last year, UCLA researchers created a supercapacitor made from graphene, a super-thin, super-strong, organic nano-material. That same team also stumbled upon a technique for manufacturing graphene at a very low cost, using a simple DVD burner. These discoveries could prove to be a major breakthrough in energy technology.
Supercapacitors "have a long way to go" before they catch up with batteries as a main source of energy storage, Kluge says. But they aren't the only option in development, and Kluge is convinced that the sheer diversity of other promising battery technologies will provide plenty of options to power our future. "I believe all of these options are going to lead to incremental gains, as well as paving the path to the next innovation."