(ORDO NEWS) — From time to time, revolutionary technologies seem to spontaneously appear out of thin air and change our world. Dynamite, penicillin, X-ray machines, and even microwaves are all examples of such revolutionary accidental discoveries.
There may be another one this year. This time, however, it will not only change the way we live, but possibly save our planet from impending climate change, thanks to the discovery of an elusive technology: lithium-sulfur batteries.
For decades, we have searched for the best technology to power our modern lifestyles and introduce environmentally friendly technologies such as electric vehicles. Since the early 90s of the last century, lithium-ion batteries have been the most popular technology.
It powers everything from phones and Teslas to backup power grids and even satellites. But despite the fact that they brought us into the 21st century, they have several serious drawbacks.
First, the materials needed to create them, such as cobalt, tend to be very harmful to the environment. They destroy vast ecosystems and even leach out toxic chemicals. (In practice, there is also a humanitarian issue, since working conditions in some mines are deadly and child labor is used).
In addition, there is the lifecycle issue. We demand faster charging times from our devices. This applies to everything from phones to cars. But as any smartphone owner will tell you, Lithium-Ion batteries can quickly lose capacity if they are repeatedly quickly charged.
Battery degradation is a major concern, especially in the electric vehicle world. Used EVs sometimes become worthless if the battery is used up and it costs a fortune to replace. Overall, this slows down EV adoption and also means that e-waste, already a major problem, will only get worse.
There is also the issue of density. Lithium-ion batteries have a relatively high energy capacity, but they are still quite heavy, large and bulky. This limits the range of electric vehicles due to the heavy weight of the batteries, and also makes batteries impractical for some applications such as commercial electric aircraft and ships.
There is even a problem of ignition of lithium-ion batteries, since a damaged cell can spontaneously catch fire and burn intensely. Just look what happened to some old Samsung phones (Note 7) and the Rimac EV that was smashed by Richard Hammond.
That’s why Drexel scientists have been studying an entirely new type of battery known as lithium-sulphur.
At first glance, a lithium-sulfur battery solves all the problems of a lithium-ion battery. It uses far fewer environmentally harmful materials, can be cheaper to produce, can be up to three times more energy efficient (meaning a lighter battery), and is much less prone to fire. And all this without sacrificing charging speed.
So what’s the catch? Why don’t we have them yet?
Well, they have one huge problem. While a lithium-ion battery can last about 2,000 charge cycles, a lithium-sulphur battery typically lasts only half that time. So after a year or two of proper use, a lithium-sulphur battery is practically dead.
Lithium-sulfur batteries can be cheaper to produce and up to three times more energy efficient than lithium-ion batteries.
To solve this problem, Drexel’s team tried new approaches to lithium-sulfur batteries by changing the connections in the battery’s cathode.
Their goal was to slow down the chemical reaction that creates polysulfides when the battery is charged and discharged. These crystals effectively pick up sulfur from the electrode and eventually cause a huge loss in capacitance. Slowing down this reaction can extend the life of these very energy intensive batteries.
But instead, they discovered something incredible: a chemical phase of sulfur that virtually stops battery degradation! They were so shocked by this discovery that they had to double-check it 100 times to make sure they heard right.
This chemical phase is known as the monoclinic gamma sulfur phase, but until then it had only been observed in the laboratory at high temperatures – up to 95°C (203°F). It was first seen at room temperature.
In a battery, this phase completely stops the reaction that results in the formation of polysulfides. This has been so effective that scientists have run the battery through 4,000 charge cycles without dropping in capacity, meaning it lasts at least twice as long as a lithium-ion battery.
It’s also worth noting that their battery was three times more energy-hungry than Li-Ion and charged just as fast!
To say that this is an outstanding discovery is a gross understatement. But this new sulfur phase has other benefits as well, such as reduced battery expansion and increased safety margin. In other words, this battery has all the hallmarks of an ideal mass-market battery, and scientists discovered it quite by accident.
As with most accidental discoveries, scientists haven’t figured out what’s really going on yet. They still don’t know why this sulfur phase forms and how to keep it that way. Therefore, further research is needed to answer these questions and create a reliable battery that will be used in billions of computers, electric vehicles, and the like.
But it’s worth the wait, as these batteries will weigh a third of the weight of comparable lithium-ion batteries and last twice as long!
Short haul flights, cargo ships and passenger ferries will receive technology that will allow them to switch completely to electricity.
This means that much faster and more efficient electric vehicles with a range of thousands of miles will become commercially viable at a price similar to that of today’s electric vehicles. What’s more, they will still be useful 10 years from now, significantly reducing waste and increasing the pace of EV adoption.
Moreover, short-haul flights, cargo ships and passenger ferries will receive technology that will allow them to switch completely to electricity. The weight savings, long lifespan and competitive pricing will enable these industries to finally reach their low carbon goals.
In short, lithium-sulphur batteries could enable a huge range of activities to be converted to electricity, making net zero emissions much more a reality.
Incredibly, things get even better.
Lithium, sulfur and other materials from which new batteries are made are abundant all over the Earth. This means that we can drastically minimize the environmental impact of mining, as well as provide a more reliable supply chain.
But the discovery doesn’t end there. The Drexel team is already considering using this discovery to create sodium-sulfur batteries. By moving away from lithium, they can make batteries even greener and remove a major bottleneck in the supply chain, allowing electric vehicles to continue to proliferate at the breakneck pace carmakers are planning.
This accidental discovery made at Drexel is set to revolutionize the world’s energy use and help humanity move towards a cleaner, carbon-neutral society. Let’s hope the Drexel team can get this technology out of the lab and into our hands soon.
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