The Quest for Better Batteries: What's on the Horizon?

January 16, 2024
This article was originally featured on InformationWeek.

It seems that the entire world is now running on batteries. The problem is, whether used to power handheld devices, vehicles, or just about anything else, current battery technology leaves a lot to be desired.

Advancements in battery technology are driven by many factors, including the need for a sustainable and efficient way to store energy in a safe way. As energy storage needs change, battery technology advances to meet them, says Steve Christensen, executive director of the Responsible Battery Coalition in an email interview. “For specific applications, such as electric vehicles (EVs), there's often a balance of how these needs are met.”

A Driving Force

EVs are the driving force behind most current battery research projects. “Looking down the road, over the next few years, the demand for batteries for electric trucks will become significant, and after that, there is even the possibility of electrified airplanes,” says Paul Braun, professor and director of the Materials Research Laboratory at the Grainger College of Engineering, University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. While current batteries generally meet the technical needs for personal EVs, they are still too expensive for trucks and larger electrically powered vehicles, so significant efforts are being made to reduce material costs and to improve manufacturing processes, he notes in a recent email interview.

It’s estimated that by 2030, EVs could reach 86% of global vehicle sales, leading to a substantial demand for on-board batteries, says Kai-Cheung Juang, a director with the Industrial Technology Research Institute (ITRI). There's also an ongoing shift in energy consumption from fossil fuels to electricity and an increase in the proportion of power generated from renewable sources, he notes in an email interview. “This transition necessitates a significant quantity of storage batteries.”

The EV world needs batteries that are lighter, power dense, and can of go farther and be less impacted by temperature extremes, observes Sequoya Cross, vice president of energy storage with Briggs & Stratton Energy Solutions via email. “More power density -- capacity per square inch of space -- and the ability to store power for longer duration usage for homes and businesses, is driving battery research” she says. “Safety is also a major concern -- batteries with less volatile components, less risk of thermal runaway, and are easier to recycle.”

Promising Technologies

Researchers worldwide are investigating many different battery types, but the primary focus is on solid-state batteries for large format (EV and larger) applications. Solid-state batteries are generally smaller, lighter, and more energy-dense than existing lithium-Ion (Li-ion) units. They can also be charged much faster, Christensen says. “These batteries are still being developed, but they show great promise and will create a massive change in the energy storage market.”

Current solid-state batteries fall significantly short of their full potential, Braun says. “Knowledge gaps must be filled for solid-state batteries to reach their potential.” Despite current hurdles, Braun states he's excited about the long-term possibilities of solid-state batteries. “Solid-state -- no liquid component -- batteries offer the promise of high energy densities, very long lifetimes, reduced manufacturing costs, and exceptional safety,” he notes. “It will be at least several years before any solid-state products reach the market in volume, but if successful, solid-state batteries offer potential paradigm changes in electrical energy storage.”

Nearly all types of batteries still have room to improve and grow, with various chemistries and potential new compounds providing improved characteristics, such as faster charge times and longer duration. “Lithium-sulfur batteries have shown some promise with cost savings and increased duration,” Cross says. “Additionally, solid-state lithium has been under development for several years, and has promising returns in terms of power density and safety, and may be ideal for EVs, but could also have advantages across multiple platforms.”

Exceptional strides in battery production are greatly reducing manufacturing costs, Braun says. “While the battery may look similar on the outside and even in the inside, how it has been manufactured has changed significantly,” he states. “The impact of advanced manufacturing has been much more significant than most people might realize.”

Vehicle construction can also play a role in extended battery life. “Our work with the University of Michigan shows that a relatively lighter vehicle can effectively reduce emissions,” Christensen says. “A lighter vehicle can generally travel farther, charging less often, and creating less of a battery load, allowing it to last longer and reduce the need for more battery materials in the supply chain.”

Ford Motor Company is at the forefront of solid-state battery development with its partner, SK, Christensen reports. The automaker recently announced a breakthrough that could shorten charging time and increase battery performance. “SK expects to have a prototype of the battery by 2026 with a production version in 2028,” he says.