Lithium-ion batteries have come a long way in the past 20 years, and for good reason. Billions have gone into researching how to make these batteries commercially viable. However, li-ion batteries still need a lot of work, and even if they reach their theoretical maximum for energy storage, they still can’t compete with octane, according to the Joint Center for Energy Storage Research. For Tesla Motors Inc (NASDAQ:TSLA), this could spell trouble.
Battery Chemistry 101
When you break it down, a battery is just a way to store energy. Further, they have three essential elements — an anode, a cathode, and an electrolyte. The anode and the cathode are electrodes, while the electrolyte — the stuff in between the anode and cathode — allows the flow of electrical charge between the electrodes. The idea behind new battery technology is to experiment with these materials to find a battery that is, in essence, superior.
Currently, Tesla Motors Inc (NASDAQ:TSLA)’s vehicles, along with The Boeing Company (NYSE:BA)‘s Dreamliner, Toyota Motor Corporation (ADR) (NYSE:TM)‘s RAV4 EV, and General Motors Company (NYSE:GM)‘ Chevrolet Spark EV, all use a Li-ion battery. Additionally, these companies have spent significant time and resources on improving this technology. And that’s great — they’ve all delivered different vehicles, and a plane, that are more energy efficient and “green.” However, these ventures may also be shortsighted.
Consider: Following a surge in gas prices in the 1970s, lithium-air batteries were pushed as being the next big thing for powering cars. But, after 40 years of development, the short rechargeable life of li-air batteries — among other things — has remained problematic. Recently, however, researchers at MIT and Sandia National Laboratories made a significant breakthrough in li-air batteries.
By watching how li-air batteries charge, Yang Shao-Horn, the Gail E. Kendall Associate Professor of Mechanical Engineering and Materials Science and Engineering, and her team, were able to observe the oxidation of lithium peroxide — a byproduct of discharging li-air batteries that interferes with charging. Their observations are critical for designing the next step in li-air batteries, and have facilitated a much-needed stepping-stone in resolving the challenges with li-air batteries.