BU-103a: Battery Breakthroughs: Myth or Fact?

Ignoring hype and learn what makes a battery a battery

The battery is increasingly promoted as a green energy solution to liberate society from the dependency of fossil fuel. While this crusade is noble and right, the battery has not yet matured to assume this vital task. Pushing the boundaries of the battery reminds us of the many limitations by being an electrochemical power source that is slow to fill, holds limited energy, runs for a time like a wind-up toy, and has a short life span of only a few hundred cycles before it becomes a nuisance.

In an age where surprise developments flash before our eyes almost daily, the battery seems slow in maturing. Improvements achieved since the commercialization of lithium-ion in 1991 by Sony pale compared to the vast advancements made in microelectronics. Compared to Moore’s Law, where the number of transistors in an integrated circuit doubles every two years, Li-ion only gained 8 percent capacity per year during the last two decades. This has slowed to 5 percent, but the good news is a cost reduction of 8 percent per year.

Progress is being made but not without roadblocks. Lithium-air, proposed in the 1970s with a theoretical specific energy resembling gasoline, has been delayed due to stability and air-purity issues as the battery “breathes” oxygen from the air. The promising lithium-metal introduced in the 1980s still grows dendrites, leading to possible violent events if an electrical short develops. Lithium sulfur may be close to commercialization, but scientists must still resolve the short cycle life. The redox-flow battery promises to be an alternative for large battery systems by pumping fluids from external tanks through a membrane that resembles a battery, but the system suffers from corrosion.

There is a glimmer of hope to increase the energy density of Li-ion by coating the anode with graphene, a layer that is only one atom thick. This is said to quadruple the energy. Emerging battery technologies take four years to commercialize, and there are no heavy lifters, or a homerun.

The Joint Centre for Energy Storage Research (JCESR) is more optimistic; they gathered the brightest minds from US national laboratories, universities and private enterprises to improve the battery. With a grant of $120 million from the US Department of Energy, JCESR wants to develop a battery that is “five times more powerful and five times cheaper in five years.” They call this the 5-5-5 Plan, which should get a boost by throwing a ton of money at it.

Toyota is also in the race for a new battery, calling it the “Sakichi battery” after Sakichi Toyoda, the inventor of Japan’s power loom. (The surname Toyoda is spelled with a d.) Sakichi Toyoda is often called the father of the Japanese industrial revolution, and it is said that in 1925 he promised a yet-to-be-claimed prize of 1 million yen for a storage battery that produces more energy than gasoline. To qualify, the Sakichi battery must also be durable and quick to charge. The prize has not yet been claimed.

Consumers are generally satisfied with battery performance in portable devices, but the electric vehicle (EV) has a higher demand; cost and endurance will determine the long-term success. It’s as if the EV sets the threshold for how far the battery can go.

It makes little sense to use batteries to propel trains, ocean-going ships and large airplanes. Batteries are simply too heavy. If all engines and the fuel in an aircraft were to be replaced with batteries, the flight would last under 10 minutes before the fuel would be exhausted. Competing against fossil fuel with a net calorific value that is 100 times higher than the battery is a challenge. (See BU-1007: Net Calorific Value.) Conversely, petroleum cannot match the battery, which is clean, quiet, small, and has an immediate start-up with the flick of a switch.

Last updated 2016-04-11

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On June 18, 2015 at 4:38pm
Allan Weeks wrote:

I have learned so much from these articles - keep up the good work.
Your opinion please..
We manufacture small monitoring devices that require the following power supply.
Standby - on board cpu and LCD - draw is typically 0.3 mA
Transmit - about 20mA for 5 microseconds
Environment is -20 (Cool stores)
We have settled on Li-SOCl2 2000’s (I think bobbin wound)
Would this be your choice ? 
Thank and regards -  Allan.

On July 11, 2015 at 11:53am
Megahard wrote:

“Li-ion only gained eight percent capacity per year during the last two decades.” What does this mean? 8% increase in energy density per unit volume? Or per unit weight? Any sources or examples of “old” Li-ion batteries VS “new” Li-ion?

On July 20, 2015 at 8:11am
Mike Kantz wrote:

It would be worthwhile to mention the great advantages of the UltraBattery. A combination of lead-acid with internal ultracapacitor technology. Another leap forward.  Also the new PowerWall storage from Elon Musk is noteworthy.

On July 27, 2015 at 12:01pm
Marius Hattingh wrote:

Are there any views on the Lead Crystal battery?
Any info or experiences with it will be appreciated.

Not sure if I am allowed to post the website, but here it is for you to read up on:


If I was not allowed to post that I apologize.

On November 30, 2015 at 11:06am
Peter Coombs wrote:

Please double check writings. The second to the last paragraph refers to an entity known only as EV. I am reading in the Basic section. Who, or what is an EV?
The funniest part about this is that when I tried to search your website to find out what it was, it wouldn’t let me. Too few letters, is what it read.

On January 4, 2016 at 6:50am
Audun Lonmo Knudsrod wrote:

Peter Coombs: EV is short for “Electric Vehicle”.

On January 15, 2016 at 9:07pm
Konstantinos Mouzakitis wrote:

Reason for comment instead of e-mail. Contact form bug. “You are not authorized to…”

Misspelling/ Correction


Paragraph 4 sentence 2 replace “Immerging” with “Emerging”:

“Immerging battery technologies will take four years to commercialize, and there are no heavy lifters or a homerun.”

Thank you for this website. I hope to read it and hopefully get your book as well.

On February 21, 2016 at 1:11pm
Don Lineback wrote:

Would you like to see our new aircraft batteries? I have a PDF I can send.
Your info on batteries has been really helpful - Thanks

On March 17, 2016 at 10:01am
John Anderson wrote:

Thank you for the article, battery technology is an intriguing subject. The US Department of Energy (DoE) has spent massively on battery development since the USABC was formed in the early 1990s. The work seems to be mostly trial and error as breakthroughs are announced only to learn later that they weren’t repeatable, the properties were lost when they moved to production processes, or the properties were lost during life-cycle testing. Researchers seem to have no idea of what causes the changes or how to fix them so they’re back at square one. Is there something about battery chemistry that defies scientific understanding or did they not bother doing the basic research and went directly to developing market ready prototypes? Instead of spending hundreds of millions (if not billions) of dollars over the past twenty plus years, would they have been better off spending several million on concentrated basic research?

On November 25, 2016 at 11:01am
james weigand wrote:

is it ever necessary to add distilled water to an AGM battery (BRAILLE) it has been discharged for 5 years and i am bringing it back with a new battery minder charger. it looks dry inside (i don’t mean “flooded” either thanks

On December 6, 2016 at 11:10am
Nelly Bergeron wrote:

this is very helpful because i am doing a project in IPC and i can learn a lot of things here. We choose to write about how batteries evolve and how we can make it better. thank you for all this informations.

On December 30, 2016 at 7:41am
beko wrote:

1 million yen in 2016 is roughly about 10.000 USD. Not remotely any incentive.