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Battery electronics: The future of energy storage, By Okezue Bell

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The revolutions in energy generation and energy storage have completely changed the way our interfacing with technology works. New phones boasting a “30% longer charge” allows us to leverage our devices faster. Batteries are a huge part of the reason why we like to spend $1000+ on the newest iPhone every year, instead of sticking with our old devices.

The devices are leveraging the latest developments in the lithium ion battery, a type of rechargeable battery that uses liquid electrolytes to regulate flow, thereby making it very versatile, and have high energy density.

What is inside my iPhone? A lithium ion battery… amongst other things (ars-technica)

If you were to tear off the screen and casing of your mobile smartphone, you would probably find a relatively thin and small battery inside. That is what has been keeping your phone running all this time. This is the beauty of lithium ion batteries: they can provide a whole lot of charge without needing a whole lot of space, which is why they are so commonly used in mobile electronics.

After some time though, your phone stops being able to hold a charge. The lithium ion battery behaves sort of like a dangerous, combustible balloon. As gas begins to build up inside of it, and begins to swell. Then, you start to find that your phone is dying at 20% charge. How fun 😡!

You are on the left. (Battery-Image)

At this point, it’s not even inconvenient, it’s dangerous. Lithium ion batteries have a propensity to catch fire and explode, especially after eating a gaseous meal. So, you have two options:

  1. Get a new phone and recycle the battery.
  2. Deal with the horrific charge and wait for the phone to explode in your pocket.

At this point it should be obvious that option 1 is the only way out, though there could be a third option of replacing the battery, but that is cumbersome and dangerous, especially in phones.

Basically, you would have to shell out $1,100 more for the exact same problem to occur. You see, many lithium ion batteries will swell over time, no matter what you try and do to stop it.

Oh wait, there is an option 4!

Wait a couple of months to years for companies to complete their electronic tests so that you could get a better battery for your TV, phone, tablet, car, building, laser, etc. Ultimately, testing for the technical characteristics of energy storage devices takes a lot of time, and the solution does not typically ever reach peak efficiency.

The reason why this is an issue is because global energy storage demand is increasing significantly. The world needs 160 GW of battery storage to meet the 45% of power generated from renewable sources by 2030. Currently, our energy storage capacity worldwide is only 8 GW, meaning that we ire at about ¹⁄₂₀ths short right now, and we only have nine years.

Currently, we are relying on four main energy storage methods:

  • Mechanical Storage: Energy can be stored in water pumped to a higher elevation using pumped storage methods or by moving solid matter to higher locations (gravity batteries).
  • Thermal: Thermal energy from the sun can be stored as chemical energy in a process called solar thermochemical energy storage (TCES). The thermal energy is used to drive a reversible endothermic chemical reaction, storing the energy as chemical potential.
  • Chemical: Using batteries, capacitors, etc. [hint: this is the most conventional method]. This is where we leverage electrochemistry using liquid (and sometimes solid) electrodes and electrolytes.
  • Electromagnetic: This is the prime time solution of supercapacitors, where electric energy is stored in the form of charges and electromagnetic fields to harness and hold charges.

Mechanical storage typically relies on Pumped-storage hydropower (PSH), which is oftentimes difficult to manage due to it relying on gravitational force. They also utilize very large facilities. There is also low applicability in making gravity batteries, and few developments have been made. Despite these difficulties, though, they are the most popular energy storage method in the US (90% penetration), and quite popular internationally as well.

The notion of thermal energy has a high dependency on geography and weather patterns, meaning it can really be used everywhere. Aside from this, thermal energy storage can take large amounts of time, and oftentimes are paired with more expensive and less efficient photovoltaic systems.

Chemical energy storage is ok. It is very widely used for commercial devices and consumer electronics, but it is still somewhat of a sloppy technology, especially when considering how sensitive they can be (i.e. your swollen lithium-ion phone battery from damage and different temperatures).They are also kinda bad for the environment.

Finally, electromagnetic energy is a great option, yet it is not as great at storing large energy amounts in single units as chemical energy storage is, though it does outclass many other storage methods overall. Still, supercapacitors and storage counterparts require immense amounts of physical electronic testing.

Each of these storage methods comes with its own set of unique challenges, making them all difficult and require painstaking amounts of iteration and changes to implement.

So, what if we could use other materials, or even entire processes to generate energy to power a variety of electronics? Well, we can. What follows is a comprehensive overview of current energy storage systems, and how we could leverage emerging biological principles to create entirely new battery systems. I am going to go over three main topics:

  1. Wait, so how does energy storage work?
  2. You talked about electronic testing. Explain.
  3. How on earth are viruses a solution?

1. Wait, so how does energy storage work?

Before we move on, here are some important terms to keep in mind:

  • Electrodes: electrodes are thin coatings that are conductors through which electricity enters or leaves.
  • Electrolytes: electrolytes are a solution that undergoes dissolving, and during the process of dissolution — where the compounds of the solvent and dissolved chemical separate, positive and negative ions swim around, making the liquid conductive. This is an important physical marker for batteries and supercapacitors.
  • ESR: ESR is a measure of the internal resistance (equivalent series resistance) within an electronic device, where resistance is the measure of the opposition to current. It is measured in Ohms (Ω).
  • Energy Capacity: This is the measure of how much energy can be stored within the energy storage method. This is a resultant quantity based on capacitance and operating voltage — the maximum and minimum voltage for operations of a storage device.
  • Cell: A singular energy storage unit, or the primary unit of biology.

There are two main methods of energy storage that are presented to us today: batteries and supercapacitors. From lights, to optical coating, lasers, photovoltaics, circuit chips, and fiber optics, the world of electronics runs on these energy storage methods. Supercapacitors are considered the next generation method of storing energy, though many of our technologies are still reliant on batteries.

Though both of these devices have the same outcome, they complete their tasks very differently. Batteries rely on primarily chemical principles, taking potential energy in the form of chemicals, and converting it to kinetic energy in the form of electricity. It also uses a series of chemical reactions to allow for the flow of electrons, which creates a current that can be used to power up technology.

Let us put this in context of the battery invented by this team of researchers.

John Goodenough, Peter Bruce, Koichi Mizushima, etc.

The lithium-ion battery is the premiere energy source for mobile electronics that was first created in 1973, and was since pioneered and iterated on into a contemporary product by John Goodenough et al.

The battery is made up of six main parts: anode, cathode, separator, electrolyte, and two current collectors.

The anode and cathode (positive and negative) store the lithium.

The electrolyte carries positively charged lithium ions from the anode to the cathode and vice versa through the separator.

The movement of the lithium ions creates free electrons in the anode which creates a charge at the positive current collector.

The electrical current then flows from the current collector through a device being powered (cell phone, computer, etc.) to the negative current collector.

The separator blocks the flow of electrons inside the battery.

The lithium ion battery may not be the only battery based option, though. Solid state batteries are currently being developed, and they use solid electrodes and electrolytes to function, optimizing for high energy density, and safety, as well as longevity. Though these batteries are being manufactured or funded by the top companies in the supercapacitor (and application) industry and like Tesla and AVX, they are going to take some time and even more money before they reach the market.

On the flip side, supercapacitors start out by using static electricity. This is also known as an electrostatic effect. Supercapacitors have very high capacitance compared to their non-super counterparts, meaning that they can store high amounts of electric charge. They do so by storing energy within an electric field that is generated thanks to two counterbalanced conductors to allow for the flow of electricity.

Thanks to their high throughput of current, supercapacitors are cited to be much better than batteries, weigh less, cost less, charge 90% more efficiently, have a longer lifespan, and be made of more sustainable and reproducible materials. Supercapacitor is confined to 2.5–2.7V. Voltages of 2.8V and higher are possible, but at a reduced service life. To get higher voltages, several supercapacitors are connected in series.

  • Batteries are great for storing large amounts of energy in a relatively small space, but they are heavy, expensive, slow to charge, of limited lifespan, and often made of toxic materials. Ordinary capacitors are better in almost every respect, but not so good at storing lots of energy. This is why we have supercapacitors, which can store higher amounts, though still not as high as batteries.

So many exciting innovations are occurring thanks to supercapacitors.

Because of their emergent characteristics, and money-saving and convenience-enhancing advantages, supercapacitors are being looked at as the energy storage method of the future, fuelling sustainable development in fields such as EVs.

Before you go…

My name is Okezue, a developer and researcher obsessed with learning and building things, especially when it involves any biology or computer science. Contact me: [email protected]

I write something new quite often, so I hope to see you again soon!

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© 2022 by Okezue Bell. All Rights Reserved.

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