Lithium battery technology—the hidden power behind much of the improvements in our portable gadgets—is about to make a huge step-change, thanks to two different science groups. One uses sulfur and the other uses air—but both improve the power of the cells.
The first breakthrough, appearing in Nature Materials, is a lithium-sulphur battery. The technology has been examined for decades, and on paper it seems to create a winning combination. Sulphur is much cheaper than some components in current lithium batteries, and can improve how much charge batteries hold. A team at the University of Waterloo has achieved a new design using nanotechnology—specifically nanorods of carbon at the cathode, with sulphur interspersed between. As a result, the new cathode could let the batteries store more than three times as much charge as current ones, and potentially cost a little less.
The second breakthrough is taking place in the University of St Andrews, Scotland. The science team there has been looking at replacing lithium cobalt oxide, with porous carbon. Basically the two different systems provide a way of getting oxygen into the battery, which then plays a role in the chemistry of discharging the cell. The new porous carbon, combined with porous battery walls, sucks oxygen from the air instead—and it's potentially much cheaper. It's also a much more recyclable process, in the sense the battery can be charged and discharged more times without damage, so cells can last up to ten times longer.
It's easy to forget that without lithium battery tech our gadgets wouldn't be so powerful or as portable as they are. These two developments point to gadgets in five years time with either much more power, or much smaller size—thanks to denser energy storage in smaller batteries. Or electric cars with batteries that have a much longer lifespan. Good news, however you read it.
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