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Scientific method: The search for a better battery


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    The chemistry lab of Dr. Amy Prieto at Colorado State University, where she is developing a new type of battery that can last longer than current batteries and recharge must faster.

    - Alex Chadwick

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    Prieto is re-imagining how batteries work and the materials they use. Her battery uses citric acid instead of the toxic salts in lithium-ion batteries.

    - Alex Chadwick

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    The heart of the Prieto battery is sponge-like copper foam.

    - Alex Chadwick

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    Prieto's lab is testing polymer coatings for the new battery's core.

    - Alex Chadwick

There's a fair chance you're seeing this on one of your devices that runs on batteries. Not to sneer at your preferences in phones, tablets, laptops...whatever, but your battery sucks. It cost too much, doesn't hold enough power, runs down too quickly. Also, it's bad for the earth, loaded with toxins.

Our devices are smart, but the basic design of batteries is unchanged from over a couple of hundred years ago: charged particles called ions following circuits between layers of chemical elements. The materials get better -- lithium-ion is an improvement over nickel-cadmium -- but the architecture of how they work is fundamentally the same. Any real breakthrough for an energy future less dependent on fossil fuels becomes much more likely if we can make a better battery.

That's why I wanted to talk with Amy Prieto.

"I'm a chemist; I'm a chemistry professor," she says. "But I've also started a company that's trying to design a new kind of rechargeable battery."

I saw her at her lab at Colorado State University in Ft. Collins, where she teaches, conducts research and leads the Prieto Battery Company, founded with CSU. She didn't know much about batteries when she started there a few years ago. And now she has a working prototype of what she calls a three-dimensional battery, with a core of copper foam.

"It's just like a sponge, you could think about," says Prieto. "Then we paint all the inside spaces with the different materials that you need for the battery. So the ions can go in many different directions, but they don't have to go very far. So, that's what I mean by a three-dimensional battery."

The battery project is in development, and she has achieved significant innovations already, though it will be years -- if ever -- before one is available for that phone you can't keep charged. But if she can get the architecture right, her battery could do a lot more than keep you talking all day. In a car, her battery could take you 300 miles, and then recharge in less than 10 minutes. That kind of performance would make a difference -- people would be more likely to embrace electric cars if they provide the kind of range and performance we're used to from the internal combustion engine.

Prof. Prieto has a ways to go...and a quiet confidence about her. It's a matter of time, she says.

"I think everybody wants better devices," says Prieto. "They want organic food. They want better treatment for diseases. But all of that takes fundamental research and that research takes quite a long time. I think communicating that sense of timing is very difficult. I'm not sure scientists necessarily do the best job of that."


Batteries: The Unsung Hero of Modern Man -- and How They Work

Batteries are everywhere and play an integral role in our lives. They’re also way under-appreciated. This video is a simple explanation of how the Unsung Hero of Modern Man actually works.

Learn more about Amy Prieto and the quest to build better batteries at BURN: An Energy Journal.

About the author

Alex Chadwick is an independent journalist, renowned public radio correspondent and contributor to Marketplace. He is host of BURN: An Energy Journal.
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You don't need to store the electricity from alternative sources such as wind and solar because you use them to supliment the regular incumbant electricity generation techniologies such as natural gas. When the sun is shining and the wind is blowing you turn down the natural gas turbines, and at night you turn them back up. Most energy is used during the day anyway for commercial uses and air conditioning.

Your comment is short sighted. Sure, at the current state of energy infrastructure, we don't need batteries. I foresee a day we are totally off from using all forms of fossil fuel, which is a form of energy stored in the Earth for millions of years. If we were to move a way from fossil fuel completely, there needs to be some form of energy storage.

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