Juicing Up the Battery Cutting Edge Research Delivers Battery Enhancements

Anu Cherian, Senior Industry Analyst
Frost & Sullivan

The battery market is currently entrenched with several chemistries. Five decades ago, the lead acid battery was considered the most versatile, with manufacturers using it for nearly all applications that needed energy storage. The advantages of long-standing nickel metal hydride (NiMH) were later realized, as it was replacing a very niche segment of the lead acid battery’s applications. Alongside the NiMH was the nickel cadmium (NiCd), which was gradually slowing down as its counterpart gained momentum due to its lighter weight and versatility of use. However, the pace of development of the consumer electronics markets were rapidly changing and even the NiMH battery could not satisfy power requirements of new applications. It was then that the years of research on lithium batteries paid off. It became the appropriate fit for new electronic applications. The main requirements were governed by a much smaller form factor and the lithium-ion (Li-Ion) battery delivered just as much, if not more, power in a smaller architecture.

The well known characteristics of the lead acid battery are high energy density, low cost, easy availability and versatility of operation. However, the primary reason for the significant growth of the lead acid battery was the ubiquity of its component materials. Easy availability and market competition spurred this technology forward. From an end-user standpoint, lead acid was well known in the every corner of the world. The term “battery” was synchronous with the lead acid chemistry. Hence, its success was attributed to its early entry into the market and its low cost that made it easy for the common person to purchase and use it.

Battery Markets
The energy storage and battery chemistry markets are currently worth billions of dollars. With the advent of Li-Ion, there has been a complementary revolution with mobile power technology in cell phones and personal digital assistants (PDAs). Mobile, on-the-go power has driven several generations of technology driven concepts. Beginning with Apple’s iPod, iPhone and iPad, competition has picked up and the number of competitors in this field has driven the application markets into billions of dollars. However, as is the case every year, the smallest and lightest weight device is just not sufficient enough, resulting in a push for another device that is smaller and lighter than the previous generation.

A Key End User Market
Increase in the performance of battery chemistries is essential for its application base to expand. The use of lead acid in a number of applications has driven the market to maturity and intense price competition has made it a commodity product. There are certain niche end user segments that always are ahead of the game and a commodity product is just not their forte. For example, the military is always a first responder to any cutting edge technology. The Army has invested in the development of in-house technology that is proprietary to their use. The military is a key end user segment that always provides the initial impetus towards the launch and commercialization of their technology.

Soldiers already carry immense weight on their backs for basic necessities including food, first aid, as well as communication equipment, weapons and ammunition. Communication equipment require batteries as well as back-up batteries, all of which need to recharge quickly.  These factors have triggered the need for an increase in lighter weight systems and more energy density of the batteries themselves.

Army Scientists and Their Cutting Edge Work
Scientists are looking for technology that needs to be easily available in addition to satisfying the power needs of the applications in play. For example, in radios used by soldiers, the time duration of the battery charge, recharge time, as well as the level of degradation over extensive use are important factors that require significant evaluation prior to use. With all of this in mind, the military has funded millions of dollars toward battery research. They have focused on intensifying the voltage per cell, thereby increasing the overall energy density of the system. Furthermore, additional research is being conducted on the use of ubiquitous materials that enable the soldier to carry the battery easily in rough terrain. Ongoing research into this area began almost five years ago and is estimated to be about a year away from production and mass deployment to soldiers.

In everyday life, batteries may not seem to be particularly heavy or obtrusive.  But to provide a better picture of a soldier’s load, battery weight constitutes nearly 20 percent of the weight carried by a soldier. This is an average of 70 batteries per soldier, or about 50 to 70 pounds. Even a reduction of five pounds would be a huge step, although scientists are proposing reductions by 20 pounds per soldier.

R&D has not been able to increase the energy density dramatically.  Current progress is only at a rate of about 1 percent per year. Scientists are therefore trying to understand ways of tweaking the energy density of cells by increasing the voltage inside a single cell. Understanding micro level characteristics of the cell, its functioning and means to increase voltage are expected to create the necessary rectification to technology that can push it further into the market. While taking an internal look at battery technologies, the voltage per cell has been at a nominal 4 volts (V) in the Li-Ion battery chemistry.  Army scientists are now recognizing means to increase the single cell voltage. Even an increase within each cell by 1 V, making it 5 V, would be considered a giant leap in the world of battery research. These scientists have been able to accomplish this by using different kinds of materials in order to kick start the baseline cell voltage. The correlation between such an increase in cell voltage and energy density is remarkable. They have reported that it has caused an increase of 30 percent in the energy density of a single cell. Such a magnitude of change has the industry awestruck at the cutting edge research that is proving to be useful to minimize battery related weight to the soldier.

Where Does This Power Go?
In addition to reducing the weight of soldier’s backpacks, it also provides auxiliary power to necessary systems. In many cases, these systems range from additional power for on-board vehicles or even power for unmanned air and ground vehicles. Power availability in these cases is uncertain and in the event of an emergency, the option to use the battery reserve power carried by the soldier would be life saving for an entire team present in a war zone.

How is it Achieved?
Scientists are planning on achieving auxiliary power goals by using the Li-Ion battery as the base material. However, infiltration with the right kind of additives, not yet released by Army researchers, is the key. These are materials that military research continues to fund so that it can be a forerunner in the space to test out new tweaks to the Li-Ion battery.Although this material is currently proprietary, there are a number of research laboratories that continue to pursue research based on a nanoscale level.

It is not uncommon to use highly reactive dopants into the electrode materials to enhance the life of the energy storage system in total. Examples range from the use of polymer materials to metal oxide infiltrates that increase the surface area in addition to increasing the energy density.  These are just a few examples of various options that were considered by commercial research organizations.

Indigenous Materials Research
Materials that are familiar and currently in use are not keeping up with increasingly sophisticated end user demand. Hence, there is a great deal of effort in driving innovations in materials research. Some of the parameters to base this work on are envisioned in the use of indigenous materials. If they can be freely found and common in any part of the world, this provides a greater flexibility for the soldier who is typically treading across mostly unknown territory.

In May 2012, the Army released information and pictures relating to this new battery system with half the footprint and half the weight of existing systems without a reduction in the basic parameters of operation of the battery. It is now half the size of the traditionally used BA5590 battery. It is designed for compatibility with existing electronic devices as well as potential future inventions in electronics that could aid the soldier.

The material currently being extensively researched is a lithium carbon-monoflouride battery. The battery is expected to be deployed within a year and in a couple of years will also be available for commercial production.

Availability of materials is the key factor while performing such research and the Army continues to diligently pursue meaningful analysis that has long term viability in the market. The US military has been the pioneer in delivering enduring solutions that, when commercialized, have caused significant leaps in technological advancements.

Ease of Use and Flexibility
A common characteristic that brings familiarity in the world of energy storage and, specifically, batteries is the rigidity of construction. This has mostly been due to the fact that the electrodes encompassing an electrolyte, either in liquid or gel form, have been tightly contained only within an air tight box. However, ongoing research is taking it a step further in devising ways and means to present a flexible material form of the battery that the soldier can easily wear. In military jargon it is called the “polymer conformal battery.” It fits the soldier’s body rather than protruding at different spots, making it difficult for the individual to maneuver through tight spaces.

The total design is termed Solider Wearable Integrated Power System, or SWIPES.  It supplies a centralized battery power at multiple nodes to energize different items. With a very smart design in place, the SWIPES won placement on the US Army Greatest Inventions of 2010 list. Such cutting edge research is expected to further enhance the design and the implementation of the battery with an architecture that was only a fragment of one’s imagination in the past.

Other Market Possibilities
When this technology becomes available for commercialization, there are numerous possibilities for applications for the enhanced battery. When the form factor of the battery can be made to fit onto clothes of a soldier, the application base in the commercial world could expand in leaps and bounds. It could be used in athletic gear to monitor the rate of use of energy in the body for fitness purposes. Another great application area would be for mountaineering purposes. As mountaineers require emergency power availability in case they are stranded in a storm or adverse climatic conditions, they require basic necessities such as a torch for light, water purification, battery run communication equipment, among others. The biggest advantage would be a versatile battery that can be used at low temperatures. Temperatures in mountaineering significantly decrease as the altitude of the explorer increases. Trekking, biking, car and bike racing, and a plethora of areas in sports could change radically in the event of a moldable battery that becomes available for commercial use.

Other possible uses for malleable and higher energy dense batteries are in the world of consumer electronics where the size of laptops could be further reduced if the battery material could be made to encompass the basic framework of the laptop design.

The Future: Unimaginable Possibilities For Energy Storage
The need for increasing energy density is driving technological innovation in the energy storage market. From the dissatisfaction with lead acid batteries, to the innovation of new alternatives such as ultracapacitors and fuel cells, there is an increased push to enable these technologies to move forward in the market. Advancements in each competing technology is moving forward rapidly and new technologies are gradually coming onto the main stage as end users are becoming aware of the various options existing in the market.

With design innovations and technology tweaks such as the one by the Army, there is great excitement in the world of energy storage technologies on the unimaginable possibilities for battery technology and its evolution.

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