Battery tech starts catching up to high tech
Standing at the base of a gym's climbing rope, Nathan Ball checks his harness and prepares to live every gym student's dream. He flicks a switch on his "rope ascender" and zips up to the 45-foot ceiling in less than five seconds. The 15-pound battery-powered device, designed by Mr. Ball and three fellow Massachusetts Institute of Technology students, can hoist 250 pounds at 10 feet per second (about 7 miles per hour).Skip to next paragraph
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"You need an insane amount of power to do that at that speed, with that weight load," explains Ball.
Enter the nanotechnological battery, the new lightweight and powerful engine of high-tech dreams, making everything possible from Ball's rope ascender to hybrid vehicles capable of getting 150 miles per gallon to battery-powered fabrics that will let soldiers plug electronic devices into their uniforms.
Recent advances in nanotechnology – the science that alters elements at the atomic level – have allowed the battery industry to begin to catch up to the electronics industry. For a long time, the battery industry was "sort of the afterthought of the electronics industry," says Steve Simon, executive vice president of research and development at mPhase Technologies, a company trying to build a better battery.
Every year the portable electronics industry packs more into smaller spaces – iPods, cellphones, and laptops. Microprocessors, the core component of personal computers, have doubled in speed nearly every 18 months since the late 1960s, Mr. Simon says. By comparison, he adds, batteries have seen 3 to 4 percent increases in performance over the past 20 years.
Responding to this, Reno, Nev.-based Altair Nanotechnologies developed nanomaterials that resulted in safer, more powerful batteries. By early 2005, battery manufacturers had shown little interest, so Altair assembled its own battery development team.
Lithium-ion batteries, commonly used in laptops and cellphones, have a relatively short life span because they use graphite, which wears out quickly in normal usage. The Altair team substituted a nanomaterial called lithium titanate that lasts much longer.
The change lengthened the life of a lithium-ion battery from 750 recharges to between 10,000 and 15,000 recharges. It also made the battery safer. Graphite can cause shorts that create fires, like those that caused Dell and Apple to recall laptop batteries last summer.
A123 Systems, maker of the battery in Ball's rope ascender, used a different nanomaterial to improve the lithium-ion battery. Researchers developed nanophosphate, phosphate in particles a few billionths of a meter in size. Most safety issues in batteries occur during charging, and nanophosphate is much less prone to such problems. So A123 replaced the cobalt oxide in lithium-ion cells with nanophosphate.
"The fact that it's safe is not enough to make a compelling new application," says Yet-Ming Chiang, founder of A123 and a materials-chemistry professor at MIT. "The other critical performance attribute is that nanophosphate can deliver extraordinarily high power while being safe."