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Social Innovation

Battery technology – more positive than negative

The battery, first developed 200 years ago, is showing positive signs of improvement.

Batteries have received a lot of negative press recently.

Their deficiencies have been blamed for the short range of the electric vehicle (EV), the slow deployment of renewable energy and the daily ritual of plugging in a smart phone.

Put simply, although technology has got better, batteries have not. Thankfully, new innovations in battery technology are starting to make a difference.

Bi-directional charging

Despite there now being more than a million electric cars in Europe, progress is still slow. Plug-in vehicles only account for 2% of all new car and van registrations across Europe. Charging the battery remains a key issue – there aren’t enough charging ports and any surges in electricity demand could unbalance the grid.  

To help solve this problem, Hitachi, Mitsubishi Motors and ENGIE have developed a “bi-directional electric vehicle charger”. Unlike a traditional charger, the bi-directional technology can draw electricity out of vehicles, as well as put it in.  

Why is that important? A bi-directional charger solves the issue of availability and balancing. A trial in Zaandam, The Netherlands, proved the benefit by connecting a car to ENGIE’s office energy supply. When the building generated more solar power than it needed, the excess energy was stored in the battery of the electric car and later discharged back if appropriate. This back and forth of electricity means the battery can act as an energy storage source for the building, helping to reduce the peak energy cost, and the driver leaves the office with a fully charged car. In an emergency, the car could also act as a back-up energy source.

Cutting weight

EV batteries require a fine balancing act. If the battery is too small the car won’t have sufficient range. Bigger batteries have more power, but compromise on weight and vehicle performance. It’s a problem the auto industry has been grappling with for years.

Enter a battery technology called aluminium-air which uses oxygen to fill its cathode rather than the much heavier liquid filled lithium-ion batteries. In tests, a vehicle using an aluminium-air battery travelled 1,100 miles on a single charge. To compare, the best mass production EVs have a range of 390 miles.

Starting from scratch

Rather than improving existing battery design, Prieto Battery, a battery start-up, decided to start from scratch using a copper foam substrate. By revamping the entire design, the company has made its battery less flammable, last longer, charge faster and cost less than traditional alternatives. Crucially, the design allows the battery to fit into smaller devices. The company are starting with wearable tech, but says the tech can be upscaled for phones.

Technology moves quickly and battery technology is racing to keep up. The single digit improvements of the past decade need to be replaced with game-changing technology.