The Future of Portable Batteries: Li-Ions and Beyond

batteriesby Rob Nunn

Despite persistent attempts to improve ways to store electric energy in portable forms, very little has changed in battery technology over the last six decades.

Yet research and development focused on enhancing battery capabilities and improving battery performance—conducted in both university and corporate labs—remains a top priority. Driven by the flood of new mobile electronic devices on the market and in development, the demand for better ways to power those devices continues to rise.

Three technologies have dominated the battery industry since the 1970s: the lead-acid battery (essential for the operation of most combustion engine–powered cars), which was invented in the 19th century; the alkaline battery, commercialized in the 1940s; and the rechargeable lithium-ion (Li-ion) battery, developed in the 1970s.

These three types of batteries together account for 75% of the global $90 billion battery industry. Yet all have drawbacks and shortcomings—including degrading capacity, relatively brief lifespan, the slowness of charging, size and shape, toxicity, and environmental impact—that limit their applications as well as the design of products that depend on them for power.

Research and development efforts are currently attempting to improve the performance of compact, portable rechargeable batteries—the kinds consumers use to power their phones and other mobile devices. Specifically, battery R&D is focused on enhancing the power a portable cell can hold, extending batteries’ durability (i.e., how many charges and discharges they can undergo without significant loss of capacity), and reducing the amount of time it takes to recharge them. In addition, researchers are aiming to make batteries smaller, more flexible, safer, and more eco-friendly.

This brief, the first in a series of briefs on innovations in battery technologies, focuses on these attempts to improve compact, portable rechargeable batteries. It examines some of the most promising recent R&D findings in the field of batteries; outlines seven forecasts about how portable rechargeable battery technology may change in coming years as battery R&D advances and innovative batteries reach the market; and explores the business implications of these forecasts.

KEY FINDINGS

  • Advances in battery technology are yielding stronger, more durable portable batteries that hold charges longer and require less frequent recharging.
  • Reducing the size of batteries and increasing their malleability will open up innovative design possibilities.
  • Batteries are becoming safer and more environmentally sustainable.

THE ESSENTIALS OF BATTERY TECHNOLOGY

In simplest terms, all batteries must include three essential elements: two electrodes and an electrolyte. One electrode, the anode, discharges or releases electrons through oxidation; the second electrode, the cathode, attracts and receives them, completing the circuit for the flow of electrons.

The electrolyte, which separates the two electrodes, is a conductive chemical medium through which the ions travel, carrying an electric current from the anode to the cathode. By the interaction of these three elements, stored chemical energy is converted into usable electrical energy.

FORECAST 1: BATTERIES WILL BECOME STRONGER: In coming years, batteries will become more powerful, capable of holding a greater initial charge. This will extend the useful life of batteries between charges (or prior to disposal). Some of the most recent findings include Silicon cone electrodes, Silicon cluster anodes, all-lithium batteries, and Lithium-sulfur batteries.

FORECAST 2: BATTERIES WILL BECOME MORE DURABLE: In addition to advances in engineering more powerful batteries, improvements in rechargeable batteries will make them more durable, capable of undergoing hundreds of charge-discharge cycles with significantly less degradation. Indeed, many of the technological innovations that will yield more powerful batteries will also make them more durable.

FORECAST 3: RECHARGING WILL BECOME FASTER, EASIER, AND LESS FREQUENT: Innovations in both battery components and battery design will by the end of the decade give batteries longer useful life between charges, reducing the necessity of frequent recharges. In the quest for faster recharges, a company called Power Japan Plus claims to have developed a dual-carbon battery (with both electrodes made of carbon) that fits into a standard 18650 cell (the one used in laptops as well as electric cars) and can be charged 20 times faster than Li-ion cells. The company plans to start production in 2014, initially on dual-carbon cells for specialty applications (e.g., medical devices and satellites), before licensing the technology to other companies—for example, makers of electric vehicles.

FORECAST 4: BATTERIES WILL BECOME SMALLER: New technologies and the use of new materials will in coming years allow the creation of batteries that provide the same power as current batteries in much smaller cells. Improvements in solid-state batteries, which employ both solid electrodes and solid (rather than liquid) electrolytes, may provide one approach to shrinking the size of batteries. Because solid-state batteries supply the same level of power in a smaller form factor, they can be built in more compact (or unusually shaped) forms.

FORECAST 5: BATTERIES WILL BECOME MORE FLEXIBLE: In addition to becoming smaller, batteries in the near future will be more flexible and will increasingly be molded into unusual shapes that fit the design or function of the devices they power. As with decreasing size, solid-state batteries will offer opportunities to make batteries more malleable. In 2014, for example, ProLogium announced the development of a flexible solid-state lithium ceramic battery, only 1.5 millimeters thick, that provides a power boost of 500 milliampere-hours (mAh) to smartwatches and other wearable electronics. The battery can be shaped and worn like a watchband.

BUSINESS IMPLICATIONS

  • Advances in battery technology may not be integrated within a single cell. In other words, new batteries that deliver more power or durability may not be the same batteries that afford greater flexibility or are more environmentally sustainable. Manufacturers of products that use batteries will therefore need to prioritize the advantages—e.g., size, capacitance, ease and speed of charging, flexibility, eco-friendliness—that will best complement their own product(s) and focus on incorporating advances in these specific areas into their products.
  • Freed from the constraints imposed by rigid rectangular or cylindrical Li-ion power packs, manufacturers of connected objects, electronic devices, and other electronic products will want to explore new opportunities to come up with increasingly imaginative product designs. Smaller and/ or more flexible batteries, for example, enable new possibilities for wearable devices in innovative shapes as well as for devices with flexible screens.
  • Since battery size significantly influences the size and weight of the devices that use them, the development of smaller batteries —as well as the development and improvement of light, flexible batteries and supercapacitors—will allow and encourage the creation of even more compact phones, laptops, and other devices. Smaller and/ or more flexible batteries will also, of course, have applications in such products as wearables, sensors, and the Internet of things.

FOR MORE INFORMATION

To read this entire brief — and to learn more about the trends and forecasts in this report and what they mean for your organization — contact michael@futureinfocus.com.