Tiny Batteries Spark Green Revolution

When it comes to batteries, reducing the size is almost as important as increasing the storage capacity.

Now, scientists have come up with a new nanosize battery that is 80,000 thinner than a human hair. The impact on industries such as green energy, which currently requires huge batteries to store the energy for when the sun doesn’t shine or the wind does blow, and electric vehicles, that have limit range due to battery capacity, could be huge.

The latest breakthrough in reducing battery size is known as a “nanopore”. It is a microscopic hole in a ceramic sheet that is about as thick as a grain of salt. This sheet contains all the components required for a working battery and for electric current production. One billion of these holes could fit into the size of a postage stamp.

According to the researchers at the University of Maryland, who published their findings in the journal Nature Nanotechnology, the battery fully charges after just 12 minutes and can be charged thousands of times without fault.

Co-author of the study, Eleanor Gilette, said that the fast recharge time is due to the close proximity of the components. She added that the nanosizing could allow manufacturers the ability to fit many batteries into very tight spaces.

George Crabtree, director of Argonne National Laboratory’sJoint Center for Energy Storage Research said that, due to the uniformity of the batteries, they will be ideal for use in a grid-scale system because they will provide consistent results. He added that this technology wouldn’t have been available until very recently, citing that although nanotechnology has been around for over 15 years, this is the first time it has been investigated with regards to batteries and energy storage.

The impact of these new batteries on the renewable energy sector could be huge. In order for major companies to rely on green energy they will have to have adequate energy storage as a back up. This means that they will need a breakthrough beyond the recent incremental improvements of the lithium-ion batteries currently in use and first developed in the 1970s. This new nanosize battery technology could be the answer.

For many years researchers have been working on improving several types of batteries, which usually produce energy by way of chemical reactions and consist of three main parts: an electrolyte to provide electrons, an anode to discharge them and a cathode to receive them.

By nanosizing these components, the scientists are hoping to discover the optimal combination of the three at a molecular level.

For example, last year researchers at the University of Southern California upgraded traditional lithium-ion batteries with porous silicon nanoparticles instead of the usual graphite anodes. This improved the storage capacity of the battery threefold and reduced recharge time to only 10 minutes.

Unfortunately, the materials and manufacturing processes currently used to make nanotechnology are too expensive for use outside of niche applications.

Low oil and gas prices have also made it hard to convince companies to invest in large scale green energy use, which would require a huge amount of energy storage to back up the grid.

Two companies, one based in Texas and another based in Israel, are currently working on a battery that uses a forest of carbon nanotubes grown on graphene to store energy. They predict that their product will be able to charge a smartphone in a few minutes and that it will be on the market in a few years time.

Many other teams are also working on batteries in an attempt to solve the requirements of the green energy sector.

Stanford University has come up with their own design that uses purely lithium, which could see vast improvements in phone battery life – possibly increasing it by over three times – and electric vehicle technology. Head of the team, professor Yi Cui, says that although the original lithium-ion battery took over 30 years to make it to market, the current attention being given to nanotechnology and energy storage could accelerate the release of new batteries to within five to 10 years.

“It’s really a moment of opportunity right now,” he says. “There’s an opportunity to accelerate the pace of innovation.”