Will Asian countries dominate the next generation of batteries, as they do the current one? 

Excerpted from The Future Postponed, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 2015

Yet-Ming Chiang: Kyocera Professor, Department of Materials Science and Engineering

George W. Crabtree: Senior Scientist, Argonne Distinguished Fellow, Associate Division Director, Argonne National Laboratory

Batteries are ubiquitous and indispensable in modern society. Without them, no smartphones or tablets, no flashlights, no cars. With improvements, batteries could do much more: transform our use of electric power by enabling a more efficient and resilient grid, more widespread use of wind and solar energy. Advanced batteries may in some cases transform whole industries—they are likely to become the car engines of the future and hence central to the entire automotive sector, as well as a critical component of the smart, energy-efficient houses of the future.

These changes are not possible with today’s lithium-ion batteries for both cost and safety reasons. Indeed, what is needed are batteries that are less expensive (e.g., use cheaper ingredients than in those in the now ubiquitous lithium-ion kind) but have five times better performance—a huge jump.

If that seems an insuperable goal, consider one example, a battery based on sulfur. Elemental sulfur is produced in enormous quantities as a byproduct of oil and natural gas production, and as a result costs about 1000 times less, weight for weight, than the electrode compound typically found in cellphone batteries. Yet sulfur as a battery electrode can store a great deal of charge—theoretically more than 10 times as much as the electrodes it would replace. And sulfur is not the only possibility—solid state batteries based on other materials besides lithium, metal-air batteries, and likely still others whose chemistry remains largely unexplored.

Of course, even realizing the potential of sulfur-based electrochemistry or other new chemistries in practical batteries is extremely challenging, because nearly all components would differ from those in a lithium-ion battery and must be re-invented, requiring expertise from multiple scientific disciplines. And there are other constraints—durability over thousands of recharge cycles and multiple years of use, safety, limited environmental impacts. But there are also opportunities to be explored, including:

The international competition is fierce, and U.S. efforts are lagging. Japan, China, and Korea have all initiated national research programs on next generation batteries that are already yielding discoveries. 

  • Using computational first-principles design to accelerate discovery of new compounds, such as storage materials that store dramatically higher energy than today’s electrodes while remaining structurally stable, or nonflammable solid electrolytes with the ion conductivity of liquids.
  • Adapting lessons from nanotechnology developed over the past two decades to the design of nanoscale structures with fast, reversible, stable charge storage.
  • Controlling the atomic-scale structure of the interfaces between key components of the battery, in order to stabilize highly reactive compounds in contact with each other and allow safe, controlled delivery of electricity from very energetic electrochemical reactions.
  • Developing new experimental tools to probe and observe the internal workings of batteries in real time at unprecedentedly small size and time scales.
  • Development of entirely new battery designs and advanced manufacturing methods. Today’s lithium battery manufacturing infrastructure evolved from decisions made two decades ago to utilize large-scale reel-to-reel winding methods derived from the magnetic tape industry. More efficient, lower cost, easily scaled manufacturing techniques are needed to enable the 100-fold increase in production volume anticipated over the next 20 yrs.

The international competition is fierce, and U.S. efforts are lagging. In fact, while lithium battery technology was conceived and researched in the U.S., today Japan, China and Korea dominate production and harvest the economic benefits. Those same countries have all initiated national research programs focused on next generation batteries that are already starting to yield discoveries. For example, Japanese universities and auto companies have made critical new discoveries in solid sulfide electrolytes that could be the key to all-solid-state batteries with several-fold better performance than lithium designs but with none of lithium’s potential for flammability. The research lead has already translated to an enormous head start on commercialization. Germany has also invested in a large national battery program and created new laboratories. Pan-European research programs have beenin place for several years. To compete, the U.S. will have to markedly step up its game.