In any future that runs on alternative energy, battery technology must play an important role. Batteries have to replace the gas tanks in cars, store the power from intermittent energy sources like wind and solar, and become increasingly efficient to deal with new generations of more powerful electronic devices. That's a lot of weight for the humble copper top to bear, but researchers are well on their way to tackling the problem.
At MIT, researchers have redesigned the lithium-oxygen battery to a point where it can compete in size and efficiency with the more popular lithium ion battery. The redesigned battery uses a carpet of carbon nanofibers to store lithium oxide molecules at a much greater density than in the solid electrode found in lithium ion batteries. The overall setup uses less material, weighs less, but retains more energy, making for better rechargeable batteries.
That isn't the only case where carbon nanoparticles could give batteries a boost. Scientists from the Chinese company Wuhe have found that the addition of porous carbon nanoparticles to conventional lithium ion batteries doubles the storage capacity and reduces the cost. Like MIT's nanofiber carpet, the carbon nanoparticles in the Wuhe batteries for a matrix that provides additional surface area for trapping and storing errant lithium ions.
And at Sandia National Labs, the Battery Abuse Testing Laboratory will undergo a $4.2 million renovation that will allow the facility to test the robustness of the larger batteries used in electric vehicles. Considering that this lab does a good deal of testing for private companies, this expansion could give a shot in the arm to stateside battery development by generating the data needed to make car batteries tough enough for the road.
Finding alternatives to fossil fuels remains an important goal of energy technology, but advances like these provide a good reminder that it is equally vital to figure out how to store that energy once cleaner production ramps up.