December 18, 2007
Stanford Scientists Claim 10 Times Better Batteries

Silicon nanowires will improve lithium ion batteries by an order of magnitude of capacity?

Stanford researchers have found a way to use silicon nanowires to reinvent the rechargeable lithium-ion batteries that power laptops, iPods, video cameras, cell phones, and countless other devices.

The new version, developed through research led by Yi Cui, assistant professor of materials science and engineering, produces 10 times the amount of electricity of existing lithium-ion, known as Li-ion, batteries. A laptop that now runs on battery for two hours could operate for 20 hours, a boon to ocean-hopping business travelers.

"It's not a small improvement," Cui said. "It's a revolutionary development."

If this works out it really is revolutionary. Will the batteries last through many rechargings? Will they be manufacturable?

Cui thinks these batterries will work in electric cars and as a way to store solar photovoltaic electric power.

The breakthrough is described in a paper, "High-performance lithium battery anodes using silicon nanowires," published online Dec. 16 in Nature Nanotechnology, written by Cui, his graduate chemistry student Candace Chan and five others.

The greatly expanded storage capacity could make Li-ion batteries attractive to electric car manufacturers. Cui suggested that they could also be used in homes or offices to store electricity generated by rooftop solar panels.

"Given the mature infrastructure behind silicon, this new technology can be pushed to real life quickly," Cui said.

The future is electric. The sooner we can make the shift from oil to non-fossil fuels methods of electric power the better off we'll be.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2007 December 18 10:26 PM  Energy Batteries

MJLange said at December 18, 2007 11:44 PM:

The article did not mention, but does this correct the overheat and exploding problems the Li-Ion batteries have been experiencing?

Brock said at December 19, 2007 9:35 AM:

This sounds very promising.

I think of the bigger parts of the story was this:
"Silicon placed in a battery swells as it absorbs positively charged lithium atoms during charging, then shrinks during use (i.e., when playing your iPod) as the lithium is drawn out of the silicon. This expand/shrink cycle typically causes the silicon (often in the form of particles or a thin film) to pulverize, degrading the performance of the battery.

Cui's battery gets around this problem with nanotechnology. The lithium is stored in a forest of tiny silicon nanowires, each with a diameter one-thousandth the thickness of a sheet of paper. The nanowires inflate four times their normal size as they soak up lithium. But, unlike other silicon shapes, they do not fracture."

That sounds (to me) like greatly expanded lifecycle / number of recharges. That could mean car batteries that outlast the engine and car body, unlike the current models which last 100,000 miles if you're lucky.

They also seem very optimistic on manufacturing; but I have concerns about the lack of any discussion of cost.

Fat Man said at December 19, 2007 10:08 AM:

I am very skeptical.

There is a definite chemical limit on battery energy density. Batteries combine an anion and a cation to produce electricity. X moles of anion plus Y moles of cation produces Z moles of electrons at V volts. If the process proceeds without thermal losses it can generate an amount of energy which is a maximum limit for that type of battery. What I do not know, and what I hope somebody can tell us is what those theoretical limits are. I suspect that existing technology is at more than 10% of theoretical limits and that claims of a 10x improvement are not plausible.

But I am suspicious by nature.

pjgoober said at December 19, 2007 10:14 AM:

Randall, I don't know if I have told you this before, but about a year ago I got a chance to meet Physicist/Science-fiction author Gregory Benford. I told him about your futurepundit site and of your opinion that super-batteries + nuclear power plants could solve a lot of our fossil fuel dependence (I was trying really hard to think of interesting things to talk to him about). He disagreed, saying that batteries are an old, mature technology for which it is highly unlikely that new improvements will be made any time soon. I said "what about nano-tech?" (no doubt from reading your site as well), and he *sort-of* of waffled.... but still was pretty skeptical. It looks like it could be turning out that you were the one who got it right. As an aside, Benford is a friendly, talkative yet laid back, down-to-earth seeming kind of guy. If anyone else ever gets the chance to meet him I highly recommend it.

Steven Ashley said at December 19, 2007 12:24 PM:

While Li-Ion batteries do tend to get warm. As far as I know the exploding problems that Li-Ion batteries have experienced have all been traced back to bad workmanship during manufacture. Two wires not meant to cross, cross creating a open short and a fire is born. Poor manufacturing will continue to be a problem that will need to be controlled as we deal with higher and higher capacity batteries.

Higher capacity batteries at an affordable cost are the one hurdle that needs to be overcome prior to wide scale electric automobiles being available. This research sounds very promising and I hope our federal government provides them with all the funding they can use to advance it.

Randall Parker said at December 19, 2007 5:47 PM:


I got the idea that batteries really can improve to become feasible for cars from reading statements made by MIT prof Donald Sadoway. He's a specialist in electrochemistry and he thinks the physical laws of nature do not prevent us from building batteries energy dense enough to do the job.

Watching A123Systems, EnerDel, this guy at Stanford, and other reports makes me think Sadoway is right. The people who are doing this sort of research are not second ranked. They are at the big name places like this guy at Stanford. BTW, A123Systems is a spin-off to commercialize research originally done at MIT.

There is a huge amount at stake for whether batteries can make the grade. We face a liquid fuels problem. There are other ways to solve the problem (e.g. split hydrogen from oxygen in specially designed nuclear reactors and use that hydrogen to reduce carbon). But batteries require a much smaller change in infrastructure.

Fat Man said at December 19, 2007 6:19 PM:

Robert McLeod at Entropy Production makes his report. I think it was optimistic, but they have a long way to go. Unfortunately, I do not know enough to know whether I read it right. so click on over there and please report back.

Ken said at December 20, 2007 6:13 PM:

This is a very important breakthrough if only for showing that batteries with energy densities rivaling liquid fuels are possible. Whether this particular approach turns out to be the basis of future ultra-batteries or it's something else, the value of spending R&D money on energy storage systems is clearly proven. Ships and trains, trucks and planes running on electricity are a big step closer. Ships and Trucks and Trains carrying loads of electricity across continents and oceans - given that it's economic for coal - are a big step closer too. Even if a grid with a backbone of under ocean HVDC or Superconductor makes more sense. Still, the irony of ME petrodollar funded solar farms selling shiploads of electricity to us in the future got me grinning. If it happens we'll only have ourselves to blame.

Brett Bellmore said at December 21, 2007 8:38 AM:

I don't believe that shipping charged batteries would ever be economical in the same sense that shipping fuels is, even if you got the energy densities up there. The batteries are going to be more expensive than the fuel, and what are you going to do, ship them back when they're drained?

What probably would make sense, though, is *manufacturing* the batteries where energy is cheap, so that they can be shipped charged. That's definite added value. But given that a particular battery will be recharged many, many times over it's life, the proportion of the energy exported in the form of charged batteries is going to be relatively low.

Ken said at December 21, 2007 7:41 PM:

Brett, I'm not sure I agree, despite that point being a bit of an out there notion of mine - and my own admission that there should be better ways to energy from one part of the globe to another. Another out there notion of mine is to use the energy transmission aspects of Space Power proposals to create a global electricity grid. Getting energy from regions of abundance to those with dependence is crucial to our future. Meanwhile what was considered very out there is suddenly not so out there at all once batteries have energy densities rivalling liquid fuels; sure, a ship would have to do return trips carrying the same load, rather than returning empty, but coal and oil prices are only going to go up, especially with carbon taxes or other imposed disincentives - those are very likely. Electric ships are likely going to be much more fuel efficient than diesel ones, and shipping is, by it's nature, more efficient for moving stuff around than other forms of transport. Do I really expect this or particularly want this as an energy distribution system? No. But I don't see it is outside the realms of possibility.

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