WHY THIS MATTERS IN BRIEF
As investment flows into new battery tech Lithium Ion suddenly has a whole host of new competitors to contend with.
It’s easy to be jaded by new battery news, after all, there’s a lot of it – especially as the world ratchets up its need for new and more effective ways to power everything from our electric vehicles and drones, to gadgets and wearables. Scientists tinker with chemical formulas, using all manner of exotic materials, only for most of that research to fade into the dusty annals of academia. But as we see giant advances in 3D printed battery systems, and new breakthroughs in auto-cannabalising materials, bio-batteries, polymer batteries, solid state, solar batteries, and structural batteries, among many others, the latest battery breakthrough, I’m told, is something different. Furthermore, the scientists behind the new battery have also, crucially, found a way to scale it up to the real world.
Cuberg, the startup responsible for the development, who have backing from Boeing and the US Department of Energy, has demonstrated “the world’s first vertical drone powered by a Lithium-Metal (LiM) battery,” which is not to be confused with the ubiquitous Lithium-Ion (LiON) batteries.
The key innovation is a new, non-flammable electrolyte in an ultra light weight design that erases the safety risks associated with today’s LiON batteries – a critical “flaw” in LiON batteries that has to be eradicated, especially if those batteries are going to be used to power tomorrow’s electric aircraft, and be installed in homes as battery back ups for EV’s and solar panel installations.
“Because it’s also chemically very robust and stable, it allows us to use much more energy dense materials inside the battery to cut down a lot of the excess weight in the cell,” says Cuberg CEO Richard Wang. “The material changes from a typical graphite that you find in lithium-ion to a pure lithium metal foil.”
Cuberg sees the ultra light weight batteries as an essential ingredient for cutting-edge aerospace programs, including electric aircraft, flying taxis, and large military cargo drones.
“If you look at anything that’s flying, lithium-ion batteries are just not good enough,” Wang says. “When you start looking at more ambitious plans, things like Uber Elevate and more futuristic electric planes or hybrid electric passenger airliners [and flying taxis], lithium-ion is not going to cut it. It’s just too heavy; the performance and economics don’t make sense.”
Safety is naturally a critical part of any aircraft, especially one carrying people, so replacing flammable material is obviously desirable. LiON batteries are notorious for their combustibility, just ask Samsung after their exploding phone debacle last year, which happens when overheating causes the flammable electrolyte to vent gasses that react to the cathode, which results in a runaway heating, fire, and explosions.
“The new electrolyte is thermally stable, so even when all the other materials in there are very energy dense and you have overheating, if your electrolyte is stable it greatly mitigates the extent to which this happens,” Wang says. “By nipping the thermal runway in the bud, these batteries enjoy great power density and are also safer.”
Perhaps the biggest advantage is that the process won’t require big retrofits to bring it to the factory floor, making the tech logistically possible.
“People in the battery business say that everything has been done before, in some form or another, typically by some government scientist in a national lab in the sixties,” Wang says. “That’s kind of true for our system as well, but historically no one’s ever figured out how to use these chemical systems effectively. There’s always been challenges of purity, with cost, with basic physical challenges.”
The LiON battery boom has created an entire supply chain that now uses some of the same precursor chemicals used in the Cuberg battery, making it easier to scale production to industrial levels.
“When you look at the battery world, there are so many breakthroughs,” Wang says. “But for things to actually can make an impact, you have to go several steps beyond the fundamental materials breakthrough and figure something that works on so many other levels, economically and business wise.”
Cuberg is calling these new batteries a “fundamental leap” in battery technology. If they are right, the flight of the quadcopter could be the trailblazer for an oncoming deluge of unmanned aircraft and passenger aircraft, going places where LiON just doesn’t work. And one logical place to look for this battery to be used is on Boeing’s cargo drone, a 15-foot-wide drone that first flew last year. After that, the sky wouldn’t necessarily be the limit, if the system becomes robust enough to qualify for use in spacecraft.
However, one place you won’t likely see these batteries used is for grid storage, where extending the battery’s cycle life, the time it takes to charge and discharge, is a lot more important than saving weight. But for those who dream of electrified flying taxis of the future, having a better battery than the LiON is a welcome development.