Opinion: The solid state battery still has more to offer for future EVs

GW columnist, Hayley Pells explains why she thinks lithium ion technology is here to stay for a while longer yet

Opinion: The solid state battery still has more to offer for future EVs

After a flurry of press interest recently, little more has been heard from Austin Electric despite the potential this technology could impact on the automotive sector.

Hayley Pells (far right) with her technicians.

Lithium ion batteries, a breakthrough in 1980 and a revolution in how we can store power, but it’s technology that’s fraught with complications.

Lithium is difficult to recycle, and the electrolyte required, in either gel or liquid form, is flammable.

Pretty inconvenient if the unit is subject to repeated rapid charging and discharging.

The dendrite growth from the cathodes and anodes start to reach out for each other (think stalactites and stalagmites) and due to their conductive attributes create a short circuit within a flammable cell.

An important note as the phone industry discovered.

Austin Electric

Trevor Jackson’s idea for Austin Electric is not a battery (as most popular news outlets reported, thankfully not GW!) but a fuel cell.

Adding oxygen to things to gain energy is not a new concept and metal-air electromechanical cells utilise an anode made form pure metal and an external cathode of pure air, typically with an aqueous or aprotic electrolyte.

The advantages of this type of fuel cell is that the process that generates heat produces a waste product that is an oxidized version of the original metal anode, a product that is not harmful to the environment and can easily be recycled back to its original form.

So why aren’t we all using this technology?

Exceptional gravimetric energy densities, easily recyclable waste products and it doesn’t have a flammable electrolyte, it seems like the obvious choice.

Previous findings on commercialising the cells for something as big as a car churned up the issue of anode consumption.

It simply oxidized too quickly.

Controlling this process through finding the right mix of base metal and electrolyte has got chemists and physicists scrambling for the answer.

Jackson’s idea of aluminium and a closely guarded secret electrolyte may be the answer, as may be Japan’s mercury research and the USA’s potassium model.

The Americans recently published the Electromechanical Thiele Modulus, this ground-breaking research into the behaviours of electrolytes could remove the previous methodology of trial and error for selecting solutions, quite rightly earning Marcus-Hush a Nobel Prize for his understanding of the theory of electron transfer.

Waiting game

Although extremely exciting, we may still have to wait a while for a commercial fuel cell for vehicle use unless a breakthrough can be appropriately financially scaffolded.

Jackson’s electrolyte solution is drinkable, but he can’t live on it.

The existing lithium ion commercialised battery may be still be developed further.

One possible way to still use lithium ion technology is to remove the flammable bit in the battery, replacing it with something more compact, making the unit smaller.

The solid state battery appears to defy previous understanding of thermodynamics, but if this technology succeeds, it may not just be Goodenough, it might be something to Braga about.

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