We seem to spend a major part of our waking life charging batteries of our smartphones, laptops, watches, wearables, and more. Although most of our gadgets work at lightning speeds, one common frustrating weakness lingers on—the batteries. Of course, they have improved tremendously in the last fifty years, yet they have retained characteristics such as being toxic, expensive, bulky, finicky, and most maddeningly, short-lived. The quest for a super battery does not end with smartphones alone, rather it continues with electric cars and renewable energy sources such as wind and solar power, holding the keys to a greener future.
Mike Zimmerman, a Professor at the Tufts University just outside Boston, and his team have created what they claim is the next generation of the Lithium-ion battery. The main characteristic of this new type of battery is it is safe to power up cars, phones, and other gadgets.
The current breed of Lithium-ion batteries relies on a liquid electrolyte between their positive and negative electrodes. When hit or pierced, the leaking liquid electrolyte makes the battery vulnerable to fire or even explosion. The Galaxy Note 7 phones from Samsung aptly demonstrated this—it had spontaneously exploding batteries that would catch fire as the battery casing caused one of the electrodes to bend, increasing the risk of short circuits.
However, Zimmerman’s battery won’t explode or catch fire even if most of it has been chopped away. Rather, it will continue to power the device. It will endure repeated damage without risk of fire or explosion, thanks to its solid electrolyte.
Besides being the Holy Grail for safe batteries, solid electrolytes can hold more charge for a given volume compared to what the liquid electrolytes can. The solid plastic electrolyte developed by Professor Zimmerman does not allow the formation of dendrites—tendrils of Lithium that originate from the electrodes and spread throughout the electrolyte—that cause the dangerous short-circuits.
Other researchers have been looking at charging times for batteries and trying to speed up the process. Rather than improve the charging times for Lithium-ions, scientists have been experimenting with different types of batteries, and claim to have hit success with batteries made from Aluminum foil.
Although research on Aluminum batteries has continued for years, most prototypes were incapable of withstanding more than a few dozen charges, before they lost their potency. Most cellphones, on the other hand, sustain more than a thousand charge cycles before their capacity deteriorates.
The Aluminum foil batteries can sustain a staggering 7,000 charge cycles. They are also safe—researchers could drill a hole into the battery while it was operating, and unlike a Lithium-ion battery, the Aluminum battery did not explode. However, Aluminum batteries are not yet ready for the market, as they are heavier than Lithium-ion batteries of the same capacity.
The researchers used a solution of Aluminum Trichloride dissolved in an organic solvent containing Chlorine. Although the Aluminum atom has three electrons in its outer shell, the present chemistry utilizes only one of them. Lithium atoms also do the same, as they have only one electron in their outer shell. However, Lithium atoms are only one-third as heavy as the Aluminum atoms.