A Glass Battery That Keeps Getting Better?

A prototype solid-state battery based on lithium and glass faces criticism over claims that its capacity increases over time

3 min read
Illustration of a battery
Illustration: iStockphoto

Is there such a thing as a battery whose capacity to store energy increases with age? One respected team of researchers say they have developed just such a technology. Controversy surrounds their claims, however, in part because thermodynamics might seem to demand that a battery only deteriorates over many charge-discharge cycles.

The researchers have a response for that critique and continue to publish peer-reviewed papers about this work. If such claims came from almost any other lab, they might be ignored and shunned by the broader community of battery researchers, the same way physicists turn their noses up at anything that smacks of a perpetual motion machine.

But this lab belongs to one of the most celebrated battery pioneers today—and one of the inventors of the lithium-ion battery itself. John Goodenough, who at 96 continues to research and publish like scientists one-third his age, last year joined with three co-authors in publishing a paper that grabbed headlines. (Spectrum had profiled him and his battery technology the year before, following an initial announcement about his group's new glass battery.)

Goodenough and collaborators claimed they'd developed a non-flammable lithium battery (whose electrolyte was based on a glass powder) that had twice the energy density of traditional lithium-ion batteries. They also published a graph that showed an increase in capacity over more than 300 charge-discharge cycles. (This increase, however, pales in comparison to the cell's at least 23,000-cycle lifespan.)

Maria Helena Braga, associate professor and head of the engineering physics department at the University of Porto in Portugal, has been one of Goodenough's chief collaborators in the spate of recent papers around the glass battery.

“We are complex beings that happen between an entropy increase," she says about the increased capacity claims—and any alleged violation of thermodynamics. “I don't know why people make a big thing about this."

This prototype of a non-flammable lithium-ion battery has an electrolyte based on a glass powder. This prototype of a non-flammable lithium-ion battery has an electrolyte based on a glass powder. Photo: Maria Helena Braga

She says their glass electrolyte is a ferroelectric material—a material whose polarization switches back and forth in the presence of an outside field. So charge-discharge cycles are effectively jiggling the electrolyte back and forth and perhaps, over time, finding the ideal configuration of each electromagnetic dipole.

“This is what happens as you are charging and discharging," Braga says. “You are aligning the ferroelectric dipoles."

She and collaborators published part of their argument in the journal Materials Theory earlier this year. Another part, she says, is under peer review.

Braga says their group has been working with companies looking to license the battery technology. Because no official announcements have been made, she said she could not reveal who the licensors are or what technology they might be developing with this battery.

She did say that large battery banks that might be spun off from this research stand to not only have higher capacity, but also be substantially lighter than lithium ions. Although, she adds, perhaps the greatest weight savings will come not from comparing one battery cell's mass with another. “The biggest difference would be that you don't have to have the same stainless steel bunkers in each of the cells," she says.

Sealing off each battery cell from each other—to reduce the risk of runaway fire—would not be necessary with a non-flammable battery. As would any extensive battery management system (BMS) that carefully monitors battery performance in EVs and other technologies that use large banks of batteries.

“The BMS is to control temperatures," she says. “In our case, we don't have to have that." In fact, she adds, up to a point, rising temperatures only increase the electrolyte's performance.

As for the future of the Goodenough/Braga battery, she projects it will first be used in a commercial product in three years. So circa 2022, if her forecasts are right, you might see an EV-maker or grid battery storage company, or a consumer-electronics manufacturer boast about a new, high-capacity (and non-flammable!) battery.

And if they claim the battery initially even increases its capacity as you charge and discharge it, then you'll know whether Braga and her collaborators' argument ultimately won out.

This post was updated on 3 June 2019.

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Smokey the AI

Smart image analysis algorithms, fed by cameras carried by drones and ground vehicles, can help power companies prevent forest fires

7 min read
Smokey the AI

The 2021 Dixie Fire in northern California is suspected of being caused by Pacific Gas & Electric's equipment. The fire is the second-largest in California history.

Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images

The 2020 fire season in the United States was the worst in at least 70 years, with some 4 million hectares burned on the west coast alone. These West Coast fires killed at least 37 people, destroyed hundreds of structures, caused nearly US $20 billion in damage, and filled the air with smoke that threatened the health of millions of people. And this was on top of a 2018 fire season that burned more than 700,000 hectares of land in California, and a 2019-to-2020 wildfire season in Australia that torched nearly 18 million hectares.

While some of these fires started from human carelessness—or arson—far too many were sparked and spread by the electrical power infrastructure and power lines. The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire) calculates that nearly 100,000 burned hectares of those 2018 California fires were the fault of the electric power infrastructure, including the devastating Camp Fire, which wiped out most of the town of Paradise. And in July of this year, Pacific Gas & Electric indicated that blown fuses on one of its utility poles may have sparked the Dixie Fire, which burned nearly 400,000 hectares.

Until these recent disasters, most people, even those living in vulnerable areas, didn't give much thought to the fire risk from the electrical infrastructure. Power companies trim trees and inspect lines on a regular—if not particularly frequent—basis.

However, the frequency of these inspections has changed little over the years, even though climate change is causing drier and hotter weather conditions that lead up to more intense wildfires. In addition, many key electrical components are beyond their shelf lives, including insulators, transformers, arrestors, and splices that are more than 40 years old. Many transmission towers, most built for a 40-year lifespan, are entering their final decade.

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