What does it take to make a better battery?

12/02/2019

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Cambridge researchers are working to solve one of technology’s biggest puzzles: how to build next-generation batteries that could power a green revolution.

A better battery could make all the difference. So what’s holding up progress?

Like many of us, when I wake up I reach for the phone on my bedside table and begin scrolling through Twitter, Instagram, email and news apps. I listen to streamed music as I get ready for work and podcasts during my commute. By the time I reach the office, my phone already needs a boost. It’s not even 9am.

It’s a modern miracle that we have computers in our pockets more powerful than those which supported the moon landings. But, despite the fact that the transistors inside our phones and laptops have been getting smaller and faster every year, the batteries that power them have not.

The key to making electronics portable – and powering a sea change in how we communicate and consume information – was the commercialisation of lithium-ion batteries by Sony in 1991. Lithium-ion batteries are rechargeable, so when the device is connected to a charger it restores the battery for another use.

While lithium-ion batteries have undeniable advantages, such as relatively high energy densities and long lifetimes in comparison with other batteries and means of energy storage, they can also overheat or even explode and are relatively expensive to produce. Additionally, their energy density is nowhere near that of petrol. This makes them unsuitable for widespread use in two major clean technologies: electric cars and grid-scale storage for solar power. A better battery could make all the difference. So what’s holding up progress? 

Professor Clare Grey is one of the UK’s leading battery researchers and heads a large research group in Cambridge’s Department of Chemistry. Using methods such as NMR spectroscopy, her group studies materials that could be used in next-generation batteries, fuel cells and supercapacitors.

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Image: False-colour microscopic view of a reduced graphene oxide electrode (black, centre), which hosts the large (on the order of 20 micrometers) lithium hydroxide particles (pink) that form when a lithium-oxygen battery discharges.

Credit: From the October 30 2015 cover of Science. Illustration: Valerie Altounian/Science. Reprinted with permission from AAAS

Reproduced courtesy of the University of Cambridge

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