Woman showing a mobile phone with low battery icon in the screen.
August 31, 2016

Why haven’t we seen ‘next-gen’ phone batteries yet?

Developing a truly next-gen battery that is capable of replacing currently available technology and accelerating the shift from fossil fuels to renewable energy source will require a significant investment and a significant paradigm shift, according to one clean energy expert.

Writing in the MIT Technology Review, Richard Martin, senior energy editor for the publication and author of Coal Wars: The Future of Energy & The Fate of the Planet, explained that several startups are getting “closer to producing devices that are economical, safe, compact, and energy-dense enough to store energy at a cost of less than $100 a kilowatt-hour.”

“Energy storage at that price would have a galvanic effect, overcoming the problem of powering a 24/7 grid with renewable energy that’s available only when the wind blows or the sun shines,” he said. Such advances would also help improve electric vehicles, Martin said. Unfortunately, he added, “those batteries are not being commercialized at anywhere near the pace needed to hasten the shift from fossil fuels to renewables.”

Many experts in the field, he wrote, believe that significant advancements in battery technology will require a radical overhaul in their design on both the physical and chemical level, as well as a departure from the familiar lithium-ion battery model that has dominated consumer electronics over the past several decades. Such advancements have been slow in coming.

Funding issues, other problems keeping ‘holy grail’ out of reach

Martin’s analysis comes just a few months after Ellen Williams, head of the US Department of Energy’s Advances research program for alternative energy (ARPA-E), told The Guardian that the agency had “reached some holy grails in batteries... demonstrating that we can create a totally new approach to battery technology, make it work, [and] make it commercially viable.”

Williams added that battery storage systems developed with the assistance of ARPA-E might be able to radically alter the country’s electrical grid within the next 10 years, and that the agency is working on new designs and new chemistries for batteries that would replace current lithium-ion technology while lowering the cost of energy storage at a rapid rate, the newspaper reported.

man holding smartphone

Smartphones are becoming more and more important, but battery technology isn't keeping pace with every thing else. (Credit: Thinkstock)

“Our battery teams have developed new approaches to grid-scale batteries and moved them out,” Williams told The Guardian, adding that three companies already had batteries available for sale and that six others were in the process of developing new products. However, as the paper noted, ARPA-E “has been upbeat in the past about emerging technologies” while scientists working on such technology “have struggled and failed to replicate such successes at greater scale and lower cost outside the research lab.”

It is that very problem that Martin highlights in his new report, stating that despite the fact that projects funded by ARPA-E have produced “very promising results,” the ultimate goal of cheap, compact next-gen batteries “remains elusive,” due in part to the fact that there have been many different research teams attempting to tackle the problem in so many different ways, from foam batteries to products using unique chemical structures, that no one type of project is attracting a significant portion of the time and funding required to make them commercially viable.

The funding issue is particularly “hard to overcome,” Martin said, citing statistics which stated that the average “next-gen” battery startup is only receiving $40 million in funding over a span of eight years, while Tesla is investing nearly $5 billion in its new lithium-ion battery production center. That discrepancy, coupled with regular improvements in lithium-ion technology and the unwillingness of major production companies to fund such research, means that it could be quite a while before the next major breakthrough in battery technology hits store shelves.


Image credit: Thinkstock