The current lithium and alkaline batteries that power cars, smartphones, and laptops are about to get a serious face-lift Battery technology has historically advanced very slowly, but demand is exploding for batteries that can operate under extreme temperatures and go through more charge cycles. As the world economy moves away from fossil fuels, batteries become increasingly important to normalize power grid distribution. On a smaller scale, both electric vehicles and smartphones will benefit from improved battery technologies.
Current Battery Tech
For being the high tech transportation of tomorrow, electric vehicles use some decidedly low tech parts. The first generation of electric vehicles mainly used lead-acid batteries, which are cheap to manufacture. Unfortunately, lead-acid batteries are toxic to the environment, have a low 70 percent charge-discharge efficiency, and become less efficient at low temperatures.
Lead-acid batteries have been phased out in favor of lithium ion batteries, which operate with up to 90 percent efficiency. However, traditional lithium ion batteries have a short lifespan of around 1,000 charge-discharge cycles.
While still a few years away from mass production, several new battery technologies promise improvements across the board including higher energy densities, longer lifespans, and shorter charge times. Lithium iron phosphate and lithium-manganese spinel batteries already boast impressive track records. Unfortunately, neither type will be available for at least a year.
While A123 filed for bankruptcy in October 2012, the company may still hold the key to the electric vehicle's success. Over the past several years, A123 has developed lithium iron phosphate as a more attractive alternative to lithium ion. Instead of a lifespan of 1,000 charge cycles, lithium iron phosphate boasts a lifespan of over 7,000 cycles. For the average EV driver, that translates to over 10 years before replacements are needed.
Electric vehicles need to operate in a whole range of conditions from 120 degrees Fahrenheit down to -30 degrees. Traditional lithium ion batteries involuntarily discharge at higher temperatures while becoming inefficient below freezing, a problem that has restricted the use of electric vehicles to more moderate climates. Lithium iron phosphate batteries maintain a high level of efficiency over the entire spectrum of operational temperatures.
Battery makers aren't the only ones researching new battery technologies. Subaru is currently developing a prototype lithium-manganese spinel battery for use in its own G4e car model. By using silicon and tin nanoparticles, Subaru claims that lithium-manganese spinel batteries have useful lifespans of four decades, several magnitudes longer than any currently existing battery technology.
However, A123 and Subaru aren't the only ones developing new battery technologies. Amprius is developing a more efficient anode, which it hopes to license to battery manufacturers. Researchers at Eta devices developed a revolutionary power amplifier to double the battery life of mobile devices. Development of carbon nanotube electrodes promises inexpensive batteries with much higher energy densities.