Have you ever tried to count how many battery-powered devices or machines you own?
Have a guess. 10? 20? 50?
Believe me it’s more than you’d think.
The humble battery makes the world go round, and yet we take it for granted. Without ‘portable power’ we’d have no wireless internet, no mobiles, no cars, no electric torches, no hearing aids, pacemakers, digital watches, or drones. No Apple, no Sony, no Tesla.
And stand by because the number of devices using batteries is going to skyrocket as the technology improves. Batteries are everywhere. Can you think of a culture, a country, a religion, a race of people that doesn’t use batteries in some way or another?
But frustratingly there are some annoying flaws with the batteries of yesterday. Toxic materials, poor charge retention, the dreaded ‘memory effect’, weight, and cost.
The lead acid battery was invented in 1859, by Gaton Plante, a Frenchman. His invention consisted of a spiral roll of two sheets of lead separated by a linen cloth, immersed in a jar of sulphuric acid. Heavy and basic, but to be fair to the Frenchman, this was 150 years ago.
Then we saw nickel-cadmium batteries (NiCd) – toxic thanks to the cadmium, and infamous for the ‘memory effect’. Nickel-metal hydride (NiMH) came next, invented in 1967 and less damaging to the environment than NiCd.
But thanks to the genius of an Oxford University scientist called John Goodenough the first lithium-ion battery was invented in 1980. By 1991 Sony found a way to commericalise the technology. Sadly for Goodenough the boys at Oxford had declined to patent his invention, and Goodenough earned no royalties. It’s sad, also that this great man remains relatively unknown. Goodenough is 92 years old. He deserves a Nobel Prize.
Thanks to Sony’s breakthrough and commecialisation there erupted a frenzy in labs around the world to find even better lithium-ion configurations to pack more energy into even smaller spaces.
Put simply, a battery is a device which makes ions (electrically charged atoms) travel from one point to another, through an electrolyte. The movement of the ions creates an electric current which powers any device connected to it.
The two points between which the ions travel are the cathode and anode. Goodenough’s breakthrough was to invent a lithium-cobalt-oxide cathode. Sony’s breakthrough was the carbon anode. The direct consequence of Goodenough and Sony’s work is the multibillion dollar portable electronics industry we have today, and the emergent electric vehicle industry.
As I wrote last month, Goldman Sachs and others are advising that we may be on the brink of a ‘tipping point’ in which battery tech overtakes oil as the most relevant power technology (‘lithium is the new gasoline’).
Goodenough is still inventing and is one of thousands of super-bright scientists around the world racing to achieve the next breakthrough technology.
His aim is to achieve a leap forward in technology, not just incremental steps. He’s betting on coming up with a pure lithium or sodium metal anode. If he achieves it, it’s going to increase storage capacity by 60%. And in doing so will catapult electric cars into the lead, ahead of smelly, nasty internal combustion engines.
Could this be the tipping point we’ve been waiting for? The point at which there’s a global scramble to secure supplies of the world’s hottest commodity – lithium.
And for John Goodenough that Nobel Prize might finally be his.