Battery technology gets recharged

Contrary to appearances, there are emerging advances for batteries

People really don’t appreciate how useful batteries are until the power goes out and they are left clicking on their dead flashlights in the dark. This winter during the Washington, D.C., area’s Snowmageddon event, I was thankful that I upgraded all my flashlights to the crank-for-power kind, and bought some oil lamps as additional backup (which can also be used to warm your hands if needed.) Thankfully, my neighborhood was spared a lot of the trouble and the power was only off for a few hours.

A recent summer storm where the lights flickered got me thinking about batteries again. I was thinking that battery technology hasn’t really changed that much over the past several years. Those 9-volt batteries you grew up with, along with the C- and D-cells are still around, though AA and even AAAs are the norm now. And for electronics like your laptop, I haven’t seen much change since moving to Lithium-ion technology.

It turns out I was wrong: Battery technology is actually evolving. According to Christopher Hurley, an engineer with Army Power division of the U.S. Army Communications-Electronics Research, Development and Engineering Center, lots of advancements are being made every day.

Lithium Carbon MonoFluoride might sound like something the dentist gives you, but is actually a battery technology that is light and powerful and is used in a lot of medical devices right now. Hurley says the Army is considering moving them over for military applications, since all that fancy gear a modern soldier carries has to be powered by something.

Even more impressive is the development of Lithium Air technology. In those, the battery’s lithium anode is electrochemically coupled to atmospheric oxygen through an air cathode. Because atmospheric oxygen is unlimited (on Earth, anyway) the capacity of the battery is only limited by the lithium anode. If that technology can be perfected, batteries could be reduced to a quarter of their current size or even smaller, at the same time improving their charge capacity tenfold or more from today. The applications are endless, from tiny electronics that seem to run forever to electric cars that are safer and lighter than anything on the road today, and which only need occasional recharges.

Apparently I’m not the only one who didn’t know that some of these technologies are already here. An Army memo states that lighter, better batteries than those out in the field are available and sitting in U.S. inventory right now. Commanders aren’t requisitioning them simply because they don’t know they can.

So don’t discount the humble battery. Big changes could be on the horizon for our hard-working electrical heroes, and much new discovery seems to be taking place every day. And you don’t even have to wait for the lights to go out to consider them.

About the Author

John Breeden II is a freelance technology writer for GCN.

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