The Big Battery Breakthrough? It's Here (Maybe)

Jim Motavalli

Jim Motavalli | Jul 06, 2017

Could we be on the verge of a major battery breakthrough, from the very man who pioneered the use of today‘s state-of-the-art lithium batteries? A 91-year-old with the unlikely name of John Bannister Goodenough, who conducts his research at the University of Texas, says he‘s had that eureka moment, and that we’re three years from being able to commercialize solid-state batteries—with at least five to 10 times current energy storage capacity.

My Chevy Bolt charging at the local library. It's got an impressive 238-mile range, but that could be greatly enhanced with mega-storage solid-state batteries. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Could we be looking at EVs with double the range of current gas cars? That‘s the implication, though there‘s a lot that has to happen to take these cells from the lab to mass production for automobiles. And some scientists are skeptical that Goodenough‘s technology will work.

Let‘s define our terms. The batteries in our cars today, lead-acid in conventional cars and (usually) lithium-ion in electric ones, use liquid as the electrolyte, or conductor. Anybody who‘s ever been zapped by electric current traveling through water know what a good conductor it is. And so are the special liquids used in batteries. But lithium batteries with liquid electrolytes are one of the reasons EVs still have limited range. The liquids are heavy, and they can ignite if overheated or in an accident—you‘ve heard of the Tesla fires, right?

John Bannister Goodenough was one of the pioneers of today's lithium-ion batteries. (University of Texas at Austin photo)

Solid-state batteries are liquid-free, so the challenge is finding something that will conduct as well. I wrote about that for the science magazine Nature, here. Goodenough uses glass to move the electrons from the battery‘s two electrodes (made of pure lithium or sodium metal, in this case). The breakthrough came when Goodenough heard of the work of Maria Helena Braga, a Portuguese physicist who was working on glass as a liquid replacement in batteries. He told the New York Times, “We did some experiments to make sure the glass was dry. Then we were off to the races.”

Daniel Steingart, a Princeton professor, is a critic, but he acknowledges Goodenough‘s role as a pioneer. “If anyone but Goodenough published this, I would be, well, it‘s hard to find a polite word,” he said. Basically, some scientists say they don’t see where the energy is coming from in this form of solid-state battery, and they compare it to cold fusion—which never worked, though there were some flashy demonstrations.

An artist's rendition of Tesla's Gigafactory in Nevada, showing its solar panels and wind turbines. But could it be retrofitted for solid-state batteries? (Tesla graphic)

Goodenough answered a bunch of my questions by email. He said that Braga's glass is "cheap and easy to manufacture," and that it performs with conductivity at "an order of magnitude higher than the best ceramic solid elecrolyte." He said there is "no chance of a battery fire," that he has the applicable patents and that "battery manufacturers are showing interest." He decried the comparisons to cold fusion. "Skeptics don't understand heterojunctions," he said.

I admit to not understanding them as well! A heterojunction is "the interface that occurs between two layers or regions of dissimilar crystalline semiconductors. These semiconducting materials have unequal band gaps as opposed to a homojunction."

Further, Goodenough said that Mr. Tesla, Elon Musk, "will make a mistake if he sticks with batteries having a liquid electrolyte." Goodenough admits that his breakthrough happened in the lab, and isn't ready for prime time. "We have only demonstrated coin cells," he said. "Battery manufacturers need to develop products for their chosen markets. There is, of course, a risk that there will be a snag in the scale up, but we have not detected any yet."

Other scientists have been working on solid-state batteries, including former University of Michigan professor Ann-Marie Sastry, who recently sold her company to British vacuum cleaner manufacturer Dyson for $90 million. Dyson had big plans to become a battery player, but they were cast in doubt recently when the company canceled its license for Sastry’s patents. Sastry was always super-secretive about her technology. Goodenough, by contrast, has been quite open about his. It will be a shame, then, if his cells turn out to be vaporware, because what he’s reportedly got is just what we definitely need.

Gisli Gislason (left) with Elon Musk in London. Gislason has sold 60 Teslas in tiny Iceland, where there are now 2,000 electric cars. (Photo Courtesy of Gisli Gislason)

I’m driving a Chevrolet Bolt this week, and its 238 miles of electric range is hugely impressive and state of the art for an affordable EV now. But it’s still $36,620 before rebates and credits, and the price is largely a factor of expensive batteries. The great promise of electric cars is that they’ll be clearly better than gas cars in a few years, and cheaper and more efficient batteries would make that very clear.

Imagine a Bolt with 1,000 miles between plug-ins, and a $25,000 pricetag without any need for federal handouts (which may be going away, in any case).

Meanwhile, some new developments are likely to make buying EVs easy--like ordering a new waterbed through Amazon. The Icelandic EV player EVEN, headed by Gisli Gislason, has signed an agreement with Microsoft Sweden to develop a smart online trading platform (using Azure App Fabric, Dynamics 365 and Microsoft Cognitive Services) for people to easily buy electric cars internationally—even including test drives, though I’m not sure how they’ll manage that.

Gislason said, “We will probably end up in a race between EVEN and Amazon for the best system. We will be using all the power that Microsoft has in its tool box, and have access to their 140,000 brains.” He told me, “EVs will become inevitable. Everyone will be driving electric cars in five years. They will be able to easily access the cars, buy them and have them delivered. Low-margin service will be available, so we won’t need dealers anymore. We can do test drives without dealers.”

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