The Future of Batteries: Solid State
It seems as though more and more items are moving to solid state these days. From televisions to light bulbs, technologies that once used vacuum tubes and filaments have now graduated to different kinds of computer chips in HDTVs and LED bulbs.
Not to be left out of the revolution, battery makers and researchers are attempting to ditch the liquid electrolytes that currently swish inside of battery cells. The switch would ideally allow for more power and lower cost -- which will be essential for electric vehicles, which currently have a limited range due to their lithium-ion batteries. Some research is even being funded by the Department of Energy's ARPA-E division to help research along so that electric vehicles can come down in cost and become a force in the mass market. Solid state batteries were named one of MIT Technology Review's Emerging Technologies of 2011 , but don't expect to see them in the Chevy Volt just yet.
"Solid state batteries provide a host of benefits to car makers. They weigh far less, can hold more energy and can potentially last longer than batteries with liquid electrolyte, but it will be a number of years before we see them on the road," said Michael Kanellos, senior analyst and editor-in-chief of Greentech Media.
Car manufacturers are clearly interested, however. General Motors invested in Sakti3, which Kanellos called one of the more promising startups. At Sakti3, researchers are sticking with lithium-ion, but replacing the liquid electrolyte with another material. Currently, Sakti3 founder Marie Sastry is using software to find the right combination of materials and structure to get a high-performance battery that can be produced at mass scale -- but those are all of the details on components she's revealing for now.
Other companies are experimenting with different materials. Planar Energy swaps the liquid for crystalline solids while Prieto Battery is working with silicon nanowires. Toyota announced last fall it is experimenting with a solid state battery using lithium cobalt dioxide. It's still early days for solid state, and it's not the only battery technology looking to win the hearts of carmakers. The Department of Energy is also funding projects that use everything from zinc and magnesium to lithium-air.
Even if solid state can find the right material to meet the needs of electric vehicles , "battery makers are still in the experimental stage," said Kanellos, "and car makers need to test components for years."