Shinichi Komaba
Shinichi Komaba: A battery without a track record always holds the risk of uncertainty © Shinichi Komaba

The race is on to develop next-generation batteries. Since the 1990s, when Sony commercialised lithium-ion batteries, advances in energy storage technology have been incremental and the battery life of mobile devices and electric vehicles has been limited as a result.

Breakthroughs have been made in labs but concerns about durability, safety and costs have stopped companies using non-traditional batteries. Analysts say, however, that new batteries could enter the market by 2020, claims underscored with investments by companies such as Dyson and Bosch.

None of this is necessarily revolutionary, says Kiyoshi Kanamura, a batteries expert at Tokyo Metropolitan University, as it is mostly based on existing research. “But,” he says, “advances in chemical technology and the emergence of new electrode materials have now brought these batteries within reach.”

Franco Gonzalez, a senior technology analyst at research firm IDTechEx, says: “Start-ups in new battery technology need to diversify into emerging niche segments in addition to trying to penetrate the traditional segments such as consumer electronics and cars.”

His company estimates that advanced and post-lithium-ion battery technologies will achieve a market value of $14bn in 2026, comprising about 10 per cent of the entire battery market.

There is a wide range of alternative technologies under consideration that aim to cut the cost of electric vehicles and make gadgets last longer. The winner of the race will probably be the company that can safely apply the new technology in products at attractive prices.

Solid-state batteries

This technology replaces flammable liquid electrolytes used in most traditional lithium-ion batteries, making it safer in different environments. These batteries have greater energy density, so they last longer, are more compact and weigh less. They are easier to package in medical and consumer devices and vehicles.

Dyson, the vacuum cleaner maker, last year bought Sakti3, a solid-state battery business, for $90m, while Bosch of Germany acquired Seeo, a Californian developer of polymer solid-state batteries for electric vehicles and power grids.

Researchers at Toyota and Tokyo Institute of Technology said in March they had developed solid-state batteries with more than three times the storage capacity of lithium-ion state batteries.

Hitachi Zosen of Japan says it plans to commercialise the technology by 2020, but acknowledges it has yet to work out the manufacturing process.

Sodium-ion batteries

Since sodium is more widely available than lithium, the battery is less vulnerable to price volatility and to geopolitical tensions causing supply disruptions. It is also cheaper and thought to be safer.

Battery start-ups, including UK-based Faradion and BroadBit of Slovakia, claim to have developed sodium-ion batteries that match or exceed the energy density of lithium-ion batteries. Generally researchers say sodium-ion batteries still lag behind their lithium-based cousins in energy density and cycle life (how many times they can be recharged). Sodium is heavier than lithium, so is more suited to grid storage than consumer electronics.

“It is possible to commercialise sodium-ion batteries but whether it will become a profitable business that outperforms lithium-ion batteries is a different matter,” says Shinichi Komaba, a professor at Tokyo University of Science working on the technology. “A battery without a track record always holds the risk of uncertainty in actual use.”

Lithium-air batteries

Many companies, including Toyota and BMW, are investing in lithium-air battery research because they have a potential for energy storage that could greatly extend the range of electric vehicles. They cost and weigh less than lithium-ion cells.

Researchers at Cambridge university last year said they had developed lithium-air batteries that pack five times more energy into a given space than today’s best batteries and can be recharged 2,000 times. But the technology has practical drawbacks such as chemical instability that leads to a rapid fall in performance. While the scientists claim to have overcome some problems, they say it will take another decade before they can be used commercially in cars and grid storage. Researchers at Toyota have also said the technology will not be viable before the mid-2020s.

Sulphur-based batteries

Lithium-sulphur is a closely watched technology that can also be used for military and aerospace applications. The batteries’ energy density is at least twice that of current lithium-ion batteries.

Oxis Energy, an Oxfordshire-based company that has a patent for lithium-sulphur batteries, says it has achieved a theoretical energy density five times greater than lithium-ion. It is working with Seat, the Spanish car brand owned by Volkswagen. Nasa, the US space agency, has invested in lithium-sulphur batteries for exploration missions.

For the technology to move from experiment to commercial product it will need to achieve longer life cycles. Mr Gonzalez at IDTechEx adds that start-ups must be able to produce the same-quality batteries in large volumes.

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