We've talked a lot about future battery technology, but generally the innovations are for products that we won't see for years. Perhaps not so with a new invention from MIT since it's a modification of already ubiquitous lithium-ion tech, and it could result in battery charge times measured in minutes rather than hours.
The MIT team has calculated that using their improved lithium chemistry could result in a cellphone that charges in tens of seconds, and plug-in electric cars could be charged in a matter of minutes. Both options bring significant advantages—particularly in terms of electric vehicles, which could result in significantly different models for using the cars and trucks, which generally have "commuter route" ranges between overnight charges.
Lithium-based batteries were an improvement over the previous rechargeable battery tech—nickel-cadmium—since they have a longer lifespan and lack the power-sapping "memory effect." But the technology isn't perfect. Charging a Li-ion or Li-polymer battery still takes a hour or more for the size of battery typically found in cellphones, and towards eight hours for the huge batteries that will be built into the upcoming tide of electric cars.
But Gerbrand Ceder's team has discovered a mechanism for speeding up this process significantly. It turns out the problem is that to charge the batteries involves physically moving lithium ions through the chemicals inside the cells, and the transportation speeds are limited by the current state of the art. Ceder's technique is to adjust the chemical soup inside the battery to create "high speed tunnels" through the medium. This lets the ions move much more swiftly to their alloted positions during the charging process.
Better yet, the key to improving the tech is to use lithium iron phosphate, which is already a well-utilized chemical in different battery technology. And the adjusted battery chemistry (the raw material is shown in the image) results in a device that resists "wear" through repeated recharging much better than current batteries do.
Since the technology is merely a modification of existing designs, it could be in a product in your pocket inside two years the team thinks—the one remaining wrinkle is that battery charger technology has to be improved to deliver the higher power to the new cells efficiently and safely in a shorter time.