Scientists to improve battery performance


Callaghan Innovation agencyFuturists predict batteries still on the drawing board could well replace fossil fuels, do away with petrol-driven cars and reshape the national electricity grid. Kiwi physicists and research chemists at the Callaghan Innovation agency, New Zealand, and at Auckland, Massey, Canterbury and Otago universities, are trying to improve battery performance. There’s a gold rush out there – a potential $39 billion market for electric-vehicle batteries.

Lithium batteries were invented in the early 1970s and have powered hearing aids, pacemakers, digital watches and cameras, smartphones, tablets, super-thin laptops, camcorders and many other hand-held gadgets ever since.

An army of scientists, engineers and research chemists is trying to further improve these batteries by increasing their electrical output, durability and recharging speeds, while reducing their size, weight and cost.

They have done this mainly by adding sulphur, iron, water, oxygen, manganese, titanium, carbon, cobalt, vanadium and other elements into battery chemistry, sometimes in nano- quantities. Other researchers are trying to replace lithium with newer materials such as silicon and graphene.

A big revolution on the horizon is the coming age of the electric car that uses only one quarter of the energy of a petrol-driven car. America’s Tesla Motors leads the revolution with 90,000 of its cars already on the road, each car powered by thousands of rechargeable lithium batteries set in the floor of the vehicle.

As the world moves more towards wind and solar power generation, new kinds of batteries are needed to store energy for use when the wind drops or in prolonged overcast weather.

The Swiss build the biggest storage batteries. One weighing 1300 tonnes and covering more than 2000 square metres was recently installed at Fairbanks in Alaska to be used in the event of a power blackout.

Improved or new kinds of batteries present huge challenges, huge investment opportunities and potential huge payoffs to scientists, engineers, entrepreneurs and capitalists.