It’s hard to resist the tug of a smile when imagining electrical engineers playing with silly putty. Dismiss the grin, switch playful imagination for objectivity, and we see the reality of the situation. The engineers of Riverside Bourns College of Engineering are actually researching ways to improve the efficiency of batteries with the aid of a compound found within silly putty. Thanks to this research, the nervous twitch of focus from smartphone screen to flashing low-battery icon may soon be a thing of the past.
Maximizing the Life of the Lithium Ion Battery
Used in countless mobile devices, the lithium ion battery is popular for its small dimensions and high capacity output. News headlines are sending ripples of interest throughout the electronics industry with talk of a novel way of tripling the life of these popular batteries. All that’s required is the introduction of a novel material found within the pliable toy known as silly putty. Of course, the engineering involved is a touch more complex than mixing the substance with the innards of a Li-Ion battery. In short, it’s molecular chemistry to the rescue.
Nanotube Designed for Longer Life
Revolutionizing portable energy storage technology is no small matter. Some believe the perfect battery to be the Holy Grail of mobile technology, enabling frustrated commuters to use their tablets and smartphones all day on a single charge. Imagine watching multiple high-definition movies on a skinny mobile device during a Trans-Atlantic flight, or playing a processor-intensive game during the same flight. Silicon dioxide, a chemical component of silly putty, is the key to making these mobile dreams a reality. Engineers have uncovered the full potential of silicon dioxide as a super-efficient anode by altering its molecular structure. This involves forming the silicon dioxide molecules into intricate nanotube lattices. The consequent improvement to anodes due to this molecular engineering magic could potentially result in storage gains of 3 times as much energy as standard Li-Ion batteries.
Market Realistic Makeup
Producing nanometer-scale silicon dioxide nanotubes presents something of a challenge considering the base of usage for lithium ion batteries. Every digital SLR camera, major smartphone manufacturer, and laptop computer company uses this form of power source. Developing practical anodes made from nanotubes of silicon dioxide, uniform molecular structures made of this primary ingredient of silly putty, is going to take time and investment. But the potential is huge. Silicon, as all semiconductor companies are aware, is an abundant element. It’s also non-toxic and easy to work with as it’s used in the electronic circuitry of so many devices.
Breakthroughs in battery technology reap high rewards for investors. Simply put, this is the final frontier in creating the perfect mobile product. The exotic materials and complex chemical soups utilized in these power sources already deliver a remarkable energy output and long life but not enough to cope with an entire day’s heavy usage. Utilizing this plentiful material found in silly putty could be the key to leaving battery chargers at home, to reducing energy consumption and being truly environmentally friendly in an age where the mobile device is valued above all else.
A recently completed scientific study will revolutionize the makeup of lithium ion batteries. It seems that what scientists have assumed is the slowest part of the chemical reaction in the battery is wrong, and it has been wrong for years. Batteries have been designed with the intention of increasing the speed of this reaction, thus speeding up the battery process, hopefully leading to increased voltage output. The mystery is as the chemical reaction time was decreased by new designs, the reaction times were not improved; this was especially true at high and low voltage use of the battery.
In a process long used, but perhaps not fully understood, current has been used to assist electroplating and the operation of batteries. The system involves an electrolyte base fluid, usually an acid that has a specially coated plate, usually with carbon, dipped into it. When voltage is applied, a current is developed by the ions from the fluid being attracted to the compound on the plate. When the current is stopped, the reaction reverses, with the acid attracting the ions back into solution. Eventually, the battery will wear out due to fluid loss or rusting of the plates in the battery. The electrodes are porous, meaning they have open areas in their structure that allow for the collecting of electrons in the material that makes up the electrode. The carbon does not change during this process. Lithium ion batteries make use of this process.
In general, if you want to improve the reaction time of a chemical compound, you need to speed up the processes that show everything down. It was long thought the event that controlled the speed of these reactions in lithium ion batteries, the limiting factor, was the speed by which the ions travel from the solution to solid compound on the plate. There are a series of equations, Butler-Volmer equations, developed in the 1930s that can predict the time loss involved in this process. This allows a battery to be designed for optimal ion flow. Or, until recently, so it was thought.
It turns out this theory fails to predict the correct speed flows at parts of the lithium ion battery operation, and these are critical areas such as low and high voltage of the batteries. As lithium ion batteries have become more capable of generating higher voltages, the more the Butler-Volmer equations were out of line. Now, two professors at MIT, Peng Bai and Martin Bazant, have found out why. They have developed a method to measure the speeds of the transfers that occur during the reactions in the battery. It turns out that the ion transfer is not really the limiting factor in this reaction, although it can appear that way at some voltages. The real limiting factor is actually the electronic transfer between the solid layers of the plates. This is the transfer between the plate compound and the its coating. The transfer of ions in solution is almost instantaneous under all circumstances, so does not actually limit the battery in any way.
To truly design lithium ion batteries to reflect the actions at the atomic level, a new set of equations is needed. These reactions are described by the Marcus-Hush-Chidsey equations of electron transfer. This new information will be considered in all future lithium ion batteries and should lead to more efficient batteries that can produce higher currents. It could make battery charged cars much more of a reality than is possible at the current time.
NASA is now on the hunt for a new kind of battery which will keep spacecraft energized throughout new expeditions. This battery will help take astronauts further from earth than ever before. The old batteries that use hydrogen and lithium simply aren’t going to cut it for these future travels where astronauts will be embarking on record distances from the Earth.
NASA recently announced that it is offering up to $250,000 for alternative battery solutions that can be implemented for use future deep space and Earth missions.
Over the next 18 months NASA is planning on launching a huge research initiative in technologies that will tackle some of the key obstacles that arise for achieving safe and cost-efficient deep space travel. NASA will be selecting approximately four proposals under two main categories. The first includes upgrades on current battery technology that will enhance its current capabilities for components such as cell integration and chemistry packaging. The second area will focus on solutions and proposals that will exceed the current known limitations that exist with lithium batteries.
Battery development plans will be conducted by the Department of Energy as it funds over $120 million into labs, research facilities and private companies in the United States throughout the span of 2012 and 2017 for the development of battery technologies. With many positive battery development proceedings already underway, it looks like the competition is going to be interesting. There has already been a significant amount of time, energy and resources poured into lithium batteries for use in their vehicles and rockets, and now they are definitely going to be looking outside of that range for other solutions.
All of these initiatives make sense not just for extended deep space exploration, however. They also coincide with ongoing efforts by NASA that have already been underway for awhile to reduce it’s reliance upon and usage of liquid fuel. Due to liquid fuel’s finite nature and the expense that is associated with transporting it into space, this has been among NASA’s priorities for some time. In fact, some of the space equipment is already implementing various alternatives for traditional liquid fuel such as solar energy technologies and small scale nuclear reactors. In addition to this, there have already been proposals submitted for creating fueling outposts on the moon and other nearby planets, where robotic equipment could mine the resources there and refuel spacecraft for another leg of the journey.
At this point NASA has already developed current alternatives to conventional batteries which they say can match or surpass the energy storage capacity of chemical batteries that have been used traditionally. Due to relatively recent advances in strong and lightweight composite materials and magnetic bearings, NASA has developed Flywheel Electromechanical Batteries that work through the use of an electric motor. The electric motor spins a metal disk that charges energy, which runs a generator. The generator take the kinetic energy from the spinning metal disk and converts it into electricity.