The inventor of the lithium-ion battery–which is likely powering the device you’re reading this on right now–is 94 years old. But that hasn’t slowed down John Goodenough of the University of Texas at Austin, who clearly didn’t think that his previous world-changing invention was good enough. He’s just invented a sequel: a better battery that lasts longer, charges faster, doesn’t use any lithium, and won’t explode.
One of the key components of a battery is its energy density–the amount of power it can hold for a given size and weight. That’s important for keeping a slim smartphone alive all day, but it’s even more important for electric cars, where a lot of a battery’s energy is wasted just to move its own weight. Goodenough’s new battery, developed in partnership with Cockrell School of Engineering senior research fellow Maria Helena Braga, has three times the energy density of li-ion, which means that for the same weight of batteries, a car would have three times the range.
Not only that but because Goodenough’s new batteries are solid, not liquid, they’re safer. If charged too quickly, a lithium-ion battery can form “metal whiskers” through its gel-filled cells, and these can short out the battery bit by bit, reducing its life, or even causing an explosion. Goodenough and Braga’s new battery instead uses a kind of glass as a medium to carry the current from the positive to the negative side of the battery, which prevents these whiskers from forming.
The design incorporates other changes that increase the life of the battery. A lithium-ion battery might manage, at most, 500 power cycles–in which the battery goes from zero to full charge and back. In the lab, the Goodenough’s new batteries have been cycled over 1,200 times. And because it is solid-state, the battery isn’t susceptible to the cold. Unlike lithium-ion batteries, which lose functionality at -4˚F, the new battery can operate down to -76˚F.
Lack of advancement in battery technology is holding back all kinds of innovations. A super battery could, for instance, power a smartphone that lasts all week, like dumb phones used to. But they’ll also be crucial in making the shift from gas to electric cars. Solar powering our own homes is also an option when you have high-storage, safe batteries in the garage or basement, to spread out the sun’s juice though the night.
Lithium-ion batteries are arguably the invention that made modern portable computing possible, so it seems fitting that their creator may have come up with a breakthrough to fuel the next tech revolution.