By Hal Hodson

WE ONLY notice them when they are about to run out. Icons glow red, warnings flash. The curse of modern mobility: our battery’s about to give up.

It’s a trivial, everyday annoyance. But the ramifications go far beyond just laptops and smartphones. Humans rely on two things to control their environment: information and energy. Shrinking transistors and the rise of microprocessors have given us immense control over the first: the capacity to store and manipulate data that we hold in the palms of our hands would have been inconceivable a generation ago.

But with energy, we’re stuck in a rut. The development of electric cars stutters forwards thanks to the lack of ways to power them cheaply, efficiently and over long distances. And while we’ve made great strides in harnessing wind, wave and sun to generate cleaner electricity, again, the technology to store that juice lags badly behind.

Corporations and governments are pouring billions of dollars into improving existing battery technologies – with some success. But if we are to continue to compute and communicate with more freedom, while liberating ourselves from our dependence on fossil fuels, conventional thinking needs an overhaul. We’re going to need a better battery.

The cutting edge of current energy storage technology is probably in your pocket right now – and 2 billion others around the world. The lithium-ion batteries that power most smartphones were born in the early 1990s as a quirk of the dying cassette tape industry. The rise of compact discs had Japanese company Sony casting around for something to do with old equipment for making tapes, says Jeff Chamberlain of Argonne National Laboratory in Chicago. Instead of coating the tape with magnetic film that could record data, they started coating it with goopy layers of an electrode that could store electric charge…

…Chamberlain is part of a consortium of companies and researchers with their own plans to improve lithium-ion batteries. As with Tesla, the details remain confidential, but the idea is to take coatings normally used to improve the longevity of artificial joints, and apply them to making batteries with dry electrodes. A number of processes are being tested, Chamberlain says, with the aim of finding what approach provides the most bang for the buck…

Continue reading at New Scientist…

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Areas of Focus: Energy Markets
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