The quest for better batteries

It seems that we have an insatiable thirst for hi-tech gadgets. Many of us are at a point whereby they are critical to our work, our leisure pursuits and to our social interaction. Modern life as we know it would come to a standstill without them.

The problem is that the current array of battery technologies that are available are struggling to keep up with our demands. The reluctance of many people to embrace electric vehicles is in part down to the limitations of their batteries that can only run for around 80-100 miles before needing to be recharged.

Many mobile phones, especially the newest releases with enlarged screens, run out of power every 24 hours while the batteries in my mother-in-law’s digital hearing aid only last two to three days.

With battery technology being the factor limiting our use and take-up of devices, it comes as no surprise that there is a lot of activity in this area as companies, university labs and entrepreneurs strive to find a breakthrough in battery chemistry.

Google, for example, has set up a research team to improve lithium-ion and solid-state batteries that can be used in an array of its products from driverless cars to its Google Glass wearable PC.

British business tycoon Sir James Dyson has also recently invested heavily in a company that is developing solid state batteries that have the potential to make the cordless devices produced by Dyson run for longer. Tech giant Apple, meanwhile, is reportedly being sued for poaching experts in battery technology from other firms.

A number of electric car manufacturers are promising improvements in the next generation of batteries for their vehicles, while the market for batteries capable of efficiently storing the electricity produced from renewable sources, such as wind and solar, is estimated to be worth a cool $5billion.

Any new development will have to improve on the lithium-ion battery – the most successful electricity storage device to emerge over the past quarter of a century. These batteries power many of the electric cars that are starting to appear on the roads but do have a tendency to overheat and burn.

One interesting breakthrough that looks promising is an aluminium-ion battery invented by scientists at Stanford University in California who claim the technology could produce devices that charge in minutes and are cheaper, safer and longer lasting than current systems.

Other technologies being developed include aluminium-air batteries that reportedly have 40 times the capacity of their lithium-ion counterparts. Foldable batteries, devices that are recharged using ultrasound and even batteries that can be powered by urine are some of the other innovative developments in this sphere.

Whoever comes up with a commercially viable and effective replacement for the current battery technologies in use stands not only to earn a lot of money but to also revolutionise our lives.


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