Mobile world: A global race is on to win at battery tech
Power Solutions

Mobile world: A global race is on to win at battery tech

Arguably no one has ever been popular at parties for talking about batteries and yet so many people complain about them, especially with smartphones. Whether we like it or not, batteries are going to become even more important if we want to continue to enjoy wireless living, and increasingly, electric-powered driving.

Recent estimates suggest that by 2030, 50 percent of vehicle production will be electric or plug-in hybrid electric and smartphone ownership is growing again, with IDC claiming that smartphone shipments are forecast to reach 1.53 billion units in 2017 and grow to 1.77 billion in 2021. Notebook PCs too, continue to flourish, with 7.5 percent year-on-year growth, according to IDC. The demand for new and more powerful batteries will be unrelenting. Throw-in the fact that in the UK at least, around 600 million batteries are thrown away each year and it also becomes an environmental problem.

Clearly, we cannot continue to rely on the current lithium-ion technology. Battery tech has to develop, to increase power at a reduced cost to both the environment and the pocket. To be fair, it’s not been for want of trying. There have been plenty of battery innovations over recent years but few have been from the UK.

Few in the West have taken the full measure of China’s drive toward electric vehicles… Forget Apple vs. Uber: Electric cars from China will be the real economic disruptor.

In 2014 scientists at the University of Illinois and Tufts University in Massachusetts developed a biodegradable battery that will dissolve in water. In 2015 researchers in Sweden and the US announced they have developed a battery made of a squishy wood-based foam substance called aerogel, made primarily from wood pulp. Last year, researchers at the University of California announced that they had invented a nanowire material capable of over 200,000 charge cycles without any breakage of the nanowires, meaning the technology could lead to batteries that never need to be replaced. According to Ray Chohan, SVP of Corporate Strategy at PatSnap, most of the innovations like these are coming out of Korea, Japan and the US but other countries too are starting to get in the on the act.

Spanish firm Graphenano, for example is developing a graphene polymer battery called Grabat that it claims could boost electric vehicle range to around 800 kilometres, taking just a few minutes to charge. Graphenano, which is partnered with Chinese energy firm CHINT, also claims that the battery could discharge and charge 33 times faster than a standard lithium-ion battery. It is this sort of progress that is attracting considerable interest. Chinese firm Shanxi Leqi Graphene Technology also recently announced it is embarking on a graphene-based battery project, while last year Dongxu Optoelectronics developed a battery called the G-King which it claimed could recharge in just 15 minutes.

It’s food for thought given that UK business secretary Greg Clark announced a £246M ($333M) Faraday Challenge fund “to boost expertise in battery technology” in the summer. Chohan agrees that the UK is currently “a minor contributor in the development of battery technology” and has a lot of catching up to do.  Nevertheless, the UK has its own players that will be welcoming Clark’s move.

Certainly, the UK has graphene credibility given that it came out of the University of Manchester and it’s no stranger to battery development. A number of UK businesses have been working on graphene-based batteries or power sources including Perpetuus Carbon Group and Graphenhex but it’s in other areas too where UK firms are making headway.

“Looking at innovation in solar battery technology in the UK, Intelligent Energy, a global power technology company with its headquarters in Loughborough leads the way with over 81 patent filings in this area,” says Chohan. “The company specialises in the development of Proton Exchange Membrane (PEM) fuel cells for application in the automotive, consumer electronics and stationary power markets, and is likely to welcome Greg Clark’s announcement.”

Another, UK AFC Energy - a developer of alkaline fuel cells, recently announced the start of a pioneering project on a hydrogen microgrid which could power up to 2,500 homes, while Faradion, a Sheffield-based company focussing on sodium-ion batteries - a type of cell with the potential to store much higher energy density than lithium-ion batteries - is making a lower-cost alternative for the storage of solar energy.

Like many countries the UK has designs on leading innovation in new technology and identifying batteries as a key area is shrewd given the expected boom in electric vehicles. Tesla is a prime example. It’s arguably the world’s biggest consumer of lithium-ion batteries and recently announced a project to install the world’s largest battery in Australia to help with sustainable energy. Of course, Tesla and Musk are no fools. lithium-Ion is fine for now but is probably reached its ceiling. Tesla is reported to be working with lithium-ion co-founder John Goodenough to develop a new solid state technology, amid rumours that the company is also investigating its own graphene-based battery.

Of course, battery announcements and breakthroughs will keep coming thick and fast but finding the most powerful, sustainable and yet affordable solution will take time. Whether the UK has time to catch-up and become a market leader remains to be seen but a government financial shot in the arm certainly won’t do any harm. This race is far from over.

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Marc Ambasna-Jones

Marc Ambasna-Jones is a UK-based freelance writer and media consultant and has been writing about business and technology since 1989.

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