There’s an odd micro-trend playing out via news media and press releases that all but insists that society is perpetually on the cusp of a battery revolution. In 2006, MIT hailed a groundbreaking device that could store as much energy as a conventional battery while recharging in seconds an infinite number of times. In 2007, news reports announced that a secretive Texas start-up had developed a game-changing energy-storage technology for electric vehicles that would be ready to ship by year’s end. Then, just last year, news broke that a new lithium-ion battery technology developed at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign was “2,000 times more powerful than comparable batteries.” And in April, there were reports of an Israeli start-up that could charge cellphones in 30 seconds.
This is just a sample of the many technologies that have aimed to be the economically viable solution to society’s energy storage woes. While the frantic search for the revolutionary battery has produced a variety of prototypes — from small cellphone chargers to massive power-grid storage hubs — there’s ultimately a single goal driving the battery hype: curbing climate change. Much of the public discussion on climate change has focused on adopting new energy sources, like wind and solar power. But because those renewable energy sources aren’t always available (the sun doesn’t shine at night and the wind doesn’t consistently blow), our ability to fully utilize those renewable power is dependent on a transformative leap in the sophistication of energy storage. Unfortunately, today’s batteries are inefficient, have short lifespans and negate their environmental benefits by leaving behind a heap of toxic waste when they die. So overhauling our power sources isn’t about gradual improvements in technology. We are desperate for a paradigm shift in battery science.
Certainly, there has been some progress in the world of batteries over the past few years. At the Energy Department, researchers recently identified the microscopic vulnerabilities in rechargeable batteries that cause them to rapidly lose their ability to hold a charge, paving the way for a solution and the creation of overcasting cellphone and electric vehicle batteries. The development of wearable technology like Google Glass and smartwatches has created market pressure to develop efficient, long-lasting batteries beyond what humanity has ever seen before. And NASA is testing the limits of fuel-cell technology by using a “reverse fuel cell” on Mars that will try to convert existing carbon dioxide into oxygen, which is needed to produce power as well as to breathe.
Still, the practical advances have been limited. The rapidly rechargeable battery that MIT announced in 2006 led to the creation of Boston-based company FastCAP Systems in 2010. The company manufactures batteries that helps harvesting of geothermal energy, which, though useful, doesn’t have the ubiquitous presence of double-A batteries and rechargeable cellphone packs. The company didn’t go the consumer route because the technology that went into the battery — a modified ultracapacitor whose main strength was its ability to handle extreme temperatures — ended up being most immediately useful for geothermal and military applications.
As for that secret Texas startup that appeared in 2007 – well, there’s still nothing from it. The company, EEstor, signed a supply agreement with Lockheed-Martin in 2008, according to a press release. And its partner company, Zenn Motor, has raised nearly $2 million off of EEstor’s proposed energy-storage technology. But from all currently available public reports, EEstor has yet to follow through on the claims of its groundbreaking technology. One of its co-founders, Dick Weir, has not, so far, responded to e-mailed questions.
Meanwhile, the University of Illinois researchers overseeing the development of the ultra-powerful lithium-ion battery admit the technology overall has a long way to go, even though it’s being used in the development of a start-up company in a way similar to FastCAP.
Claiming a perpetual battery revolution in the face of routine testing and normal trial-and-error does a disservice to the particulars not only of the story, but of the technology itself. We need to rethink how we discuss potentially innovative energy storage technology, because those conversations can effect decisions about policy, research and how we fund our energy future.