A Safer And More Efficient Lithium Battery Could Boost Low-Carbon Transportation

A rechargeable lithium-ion battery, in BMW’s Mini E electric car. (Photo: Reuters)

Lithium-ion batteries are an extremely common form of rechargeable battery often found in consumer electronics such as laptops and cell-phones. At those smaller scales the batteries’ technology is reliable and well-understood, but at larger sizes there have been challenges.

The electrolyte component in the batteries is typically liquid and quite flammable, and the batteries as a whole are prone to shorts, overheating and catching fire. Boeing’s new Dreamliner 787 fleet was recently grounded worldwide after two separate incidents in which the on-board lithium-ion battery, which supplies the planes with auxiliary and back-up power, caught fire.

Improvements in larger lithium-ion batteries would be a big step forward for technologies such as electric cars or electrical grids, and thus for sustainable transportation and energy. To that end, a group of researchers at Oak Ridge National Laboratory have just published preliminary work on a new form of battery that relies on a solid electrolyte. According to a piece in today’s Climate Wire, as well as a recent report in Technology Review, the new batteries promise to be lighter, safer, and able to store five to ten times more energy than the batteries on Boeing’s 787:

The ORNL researchers, in work published in the current issue of the Journal of the American Chemistry Society, have an easy method for making a nanostructured form of one solid electrolyte. The nanostructure improves the material’s conductivity 1,000 times, enough to make it useful in lithium-ion batteries. The researchers also showed that the new material is compatible with high-energy electrodes.

The solid electrolyte isn’t as conductive as liquid electrolytes, but the researchers say they can compensate for this by making the electrolyte very thin, among other measures. Even then, the batteries might not charge as quickly or provide the same boost of power possible with liquid electrolytes, but this would be okay in many applications, such as in electric cars, where the sheer number of battery cells makes it easy to deliver adequate bursts of power.

The solid electrolyte not only makes batteries safer, it could also enable the use of higher energy electrode materials. As a result, while the rate at which these batteries deliver power may be less than today’s lithium-ion batteries, the total amount of energy they can store would be far higher. A much smaller battery could then be used—saving space and weight on airplanes and greatly reducing the cost of electric vehicles.

The team restructured the solid electrolyte to be porous at the nanoscale, which yielded the far higher level of conductivity. The solid electrolyte also helps prevent shorts, and unlike the liquid counterparts won’t degrade electrodes. That’s particularly important for building better lithium-sulfur batteries, which can store tremendous amounts of energy but have safety problems and o far haven’t been able to recharge enough times to make them useful for something like an electric car.

The ORNL team’s work is still in the embryonic stage: The tests have only been carried out with cells about the size of a coin, and the research into compatibility with lithium-sulfur batteries specifically remains unpublished.

15 Responses to A Safer And More Efficient Lithium Battery Could Boost Low-Carbon Transportation

  1. Paul Klinkman says:

    Sounds good.

    Now, we need to find some automated transit system 1/10 the cost of freeways, with 1/10 the energy use per passenger-mile, and anything would be faster than freeways at rush hour.

    I’m just sitting around waiting.

  2. Kent Fields says:

    Just to put a finer point on lithium-ion batteries, the chemistry in the battery cells on board the grounded 787 were cobalt oxide(CoO2)from a Japanese company GS Yuasa.

    Not all, in fact only one electric vehicle manufacturer has used the same chemistry.

    The batteries in the EV CODA for example, use lithium-iron phosphate(LiFePO4)chemistry, which is safer at high temperatures.

    Lithium-ion batteries are a family of batteries composed of very different chemistries.

    It will be interesting to see when solid electrolyte batteries replace liquid chemistry batteries.

  3. RICK KOLU says:



  4. CharlesM says:

    They’re now looking at the protection circuits for those failed 787 batteries, not the cells.

  5. Phil Blackwood says:

    FYI — the photo shows the box of high-voltage electronics of the MINI-E, not the battery pack. The batteries are in a large box that replaces the entire back seat area.

  6. John McCormick says:

    Kent, Charles, Rick, Phil thanks for your input.

    Please give more details, links, and keep coming back. You guys seem to have what most of us lack; battery knowledge…for most of us, batteries go into flashlights.

    Batteries are the most important component of the non-fossil energy future.

  7. Kent Fields says:

    Good to know where the attention is going. Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla and Space X, offered his help to Boeing. No word if they accepted.

  8. Roger Lambert says:

    Batteries do not have to be an important part of a green transportation future. We have the technology right about now to inductively-electrify our nation’s highways and roads so that we can arrive at our destination without using any battery power.

    Batteries add a very large amount of material expense, weight, and recycling challenges to an electric fleet.

    Why keep making millions of redundant systems, when those huge expenses could go toward electrical induction of roads?

    (I wouldn’t be surprised if there was another way to power our electric cars – through the air via technology that Tesla invented decades ago?)

    Producing electricity and electric roadways should be a Federal project, so expenses can be minimized, and individual consumers needed be forced to bear the brunt of upfront costs (like $10,000 to $15,000 worth of battery pack per automobile).

    Far better to put it on the Federal debt ledger, and pay it off through equitable taxes, Federal bonds, and printing money.

    We don’t force people, out of their own pocket, to pay to inspect their own meat, or install their own fire hydrant, or set up a lab to manufacture their own vaccines; we don’t ask individuals to install an operating room in their home, or hire their own security guards, or treat the effluent water from their toilets.

    So why do we think this sort of economic model is appropriate for the most pressing national infrastructure challenge in the history of the world?

  9. Roger Lambert says:

    Sigh. Should be: “individual consumers need NOT be forced to…”

  10. JP says:

    Roger Lambert,
    You are speaking nonsense with your electrification of all roads talk. It’s unrealistic and impractical to the point of being impossible. Batteries are much more practical and realistic. You might be able to power short sections of roadways to allow charging on the go, but that’s it.

  11. CharlesM says:

    Indeed. There is some talk about inductive strips spaced at intervals along highway. But you’d need to deliver roughly a million watts along about 90 feet of road, and this would need to be repeated every mile to sustain travel at ~60MPH. This for just one car similar to a LEAF.

  12. CharlesM says:

    Oops. My agreement is with #7, but in response to #6.

  13. Gingerbaker says:

    A million watts every 90 feet for just one car?!? Su-u-u-re. Citation please??

    And if 67you are wrong, as I surmise, how do you justify self-righteously touting such unadulterated bull***t in a serious discusion?

  14. Gingerbaker says:

    Nonsense is it, JP?


    from the article:

    “The new technology has the potential to dramatically increase the driving range of electric vehicles and eventually transform highway travel, according to the researchers. Their results are published in the journal Applied Physics Letters (APL). ”

    ” “What makes this concept exciting is that you could potentially drive for an unlimited amount of time without having to recharge,” said APL study co-author Richard Sassoon, the managing director of the Stanford Global Climate and Energy Project (GCEP), which funded the research. “You could actually have more energy stored in your battery at the end of your trip than you started with.”

    I think you owe me an apology.

  15. Gingerbaker says:

    The inductive-charging technology, btw, is 97% efficient.

    Somehow, I don’t think a Nissan Leaf requires 57 million watts of energy to drive one mile down the road.

    But perhaps you have an advanced degree in electrical engineering and can show me my error?