What Are Batteries?
The billions of little and big batteries we use in our daily lives, from running our smart phones to giving the needed jolt to our cars, are some of the most useful inventions ever created. Without them, so much of the thousands of basic things we take for granted daily would suddenly become impossible. Battery technology has come a long way since its primitive roots in the early 19th century, and big advances have been made during the last two decades thanks the enormous proliferation of mobile computer devices and other machines.
All batteries can be classified into two broad types: Primary batteries (the single use, disposable kind) and secondary batteries (the kind you recharge again and again up to a certain limit). Furthermore, battery size can vary enormously; from tiny dot sized batteries used in hearing aids to room sized energy storage cells for data centers and server farms. With the exception of highly specialized atomic batteries, which derive energy from the heat generated by atomic decay in nuclear materials like plutonium and uranium -all other batteries, from the most simple to the most advanced, currently rely on the conversion of chemical energy into electricity.
To date, the greatest innovations have been made in the field of rechargeable battery development because this is the most important battery type in current use.
Rechargeable batteries rely on reversible chemical reactions to generate their power and the most advanced types are the so-called “dry cell” batteries such as those used in electronic devices. These exist -by order of increasing power density of nickel-cadmium, nickel-zinc, nickel hydride and lithium-ion batteries. The latest and most commonly found in smart phones, tablets and laptops are lithium- ion batteries. To date, lithium-ion represents the best in long lasting, mass produced, commercially available sales, but it might soon be replaced by even better inventions.
Short Term Battery Innovation
There are a number of battery related design ideas being worked on; some are more long range and other coming just over the horizon. Referring to near-term developments, the lithium-ion battery might soon be receiving a significant energy storage boost that will increase its capacity by a factor of between 8 and 10; this because a team of researchers at Stanford University invented a new type of anode that is made out of stainless steel covered in many ultra-thin silicon polymers.
Current anodes are made of a solid chunk of graphite, but with the silicon covered steel anode, energy capacity in any lithium battery could be up to 10 times longer and recharging times could shrink by an enormous factor too. This is because silicon stores 10 times more lithium than graphite and the large surface area of numerous polymers makes loading them with lithium move much faster.
Other researchers are working on developments in ultra-low energy chip designs; hoping to create internal circuitry that can run off of even current rechargeable batteries for as many as several days longer than is possible so far. If this development is coupled with a battery that is also 10 times more powerful than now possible, we could be seeing portable electronics that can spend weeks between recharges. Additionally, when they are finally charged, the time required could be as little as a few minutes; partly thanks to the silicon polymer technology, or eventually due to other developments like new tweaks on the lithium iron phosphate ion absorption surface currently used in some types of Lithium-ion batteries. This development, mainly being considered for electric car batteries, would allow for recharge times of just a few seconds.
In other areas, scientists working mainly towards the electric car market have also begun to develop devices known as ultracapacitors, which while not classical chemical batteries, could completely end up replacing them down the road in certain applications. Ultracapacitors store energy in the form of a very large running static charge on a physical surface. A big advantage of these energy storing devices is that they use no rare earth metals or complex chemicals; they’re made of extremely common materials and can be engineered to recharge hundreds of thousands of times without failure due to progressive chemical charge losses.
The Future of Batteries
Digital quantum “Batteries” are another invention that could one day lead to energy storage that is over a dozen times greater than anything
possible now. The basic process behind them works by installing millions or even billions of tiny nano-electrodes inside capacitors, enabling them to use their nano size to prevent the inter-electrode arcing that currently limits capacitor energy maximums. This could lead to small capacitors that can hold enough energy to be used as extremely long lasting and powerful batteries. Best of all, the basic materials they’re made of would allow extremely cheap manufacture once the nano-electrode production is perfected. These ultra high energy capacitors could also eventually be made small enough to fit inside smaller devices.
Batteries will only grow in importance for the foreseeable future, developments like these ensure that we can take full advantage of technologies increasing mobility.
About the author: When John Dayton isn’t providing insatiable forensic engineering coverage, he is busy covering the world of technology and working on restoring his various collections of vintage arcade games.