That battery in your cell phone packs a lot of history

Scott Tong Jan 31, 2013

That battery in your cell phone packs a lot of history

Scott Tong Jan 31, 2013

In our mobile lives today, we forget all the progress made in the battery kitchen that got us here.

“For most of the 20th century, battery science progressed really slowly,” says Popular Science’s Seth Fletcher. “In part because it was kind of a backwater.”

And, the science is really hard, especially the chemistry of batteries.

“They almost drove Thomas Edison crazy,” Fletcher says. “He spent about a decade trying to develop a new type of battery, which he ultimately did.”

Fletcher says research took off in the 1960s and ’70s. Smog in traffic-jammed L.A., and oil shocks for the whole country, made getting off petroleum a priority. Several companies tested lithium. It’s light, packs lots of energy, but isn’t always stable.

“After the Exxon Mobil company had blown up a couple of labs, they decided to get out of the energy business,” says battery pioneer John Goodenough, from the University of Texas.

Now 90, Goodenough gets a National Medal of Science at the White House tomorrow. His breakthrough: making an essential piece of the lithium ion battery — a stable electrode. “And that gave you the energy density that you needed to have a handheld device. And that led to the wireless revolution.”

Now here’s the funny thing. Henry Ford owned a car. Edison owned a light bulb.

John Goodenough, though? “I don’t have an iPhone. I’m an old-fashioned conservative gentleman who finds that I get along perfectly well with the last century’s technology.”

He doesn’t like phone calls.

Another paradox: Goodenough’s invention isn’t always for the good.

“You take the cell telephone,” he says. “Well, it can be used to detonate a roadside bomb from the hillside. It may be in the hands of evil people.”

Since his breakthrough, lithium ion batteries have seen incremental improvements. There is a limit to the architecture, though. To make electric cars mainstream, or store lots of wind energy, it’ll take another leap forward.

Steven Visco’s working on that. He runs battery startup PolyPlus in Berkeley, Calif. His cocktail combines lithium and water.

Now normally, he says, “there’s typically a spark, and that ignites the hydrogen. And then you get a little bit of a Hindenberg there. I mean it’s a lot of excitement.

Visco has a way to de-Hindenberg it, and pack more energy in a small space. It may take a decade to commercialize. But think of the payoff.

“Once you get those products to market, they tend to never go away,” Visco says. “And that’s precisely why when you open the hood of your car and you see a lead-acid battery. Well, it’s 150 years old.”

Now the nature of energy is, each step forward tends to come with a trade off.

“Every time you move the energy density up, you know you bring with that some element of risk,” says James Bellingham, who studies batteries at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute. “And just think about gasoline. I mean, how many times in a movie a car crashes and there’s a little fire and everyone runs away from the car because they’re afraid the gasoline will blow up? Batteries can have their bad days also.”

The battery chase goes on, though. And at 90, John Goodenough is still in the game. Why? For the reason he joined it decades ago: To graduate us from fossil fuels.

“Otherwise, we have Easter Island,” he says. “We’ll end up with a bunch of stones on the island that says ‘Man once lived here. But they used up everything that was there. Then they killed one another over what was left ’til there was nothing left but stones.'”

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