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Forget a better mousetrap, what the world needs is a better battery

In a recent Atlantic Monthly, there was a brief, but interesting, article on batteries, in which journalist James Fallows asked Nobel-winning physicist Steven Chu and Yi Cui, who is a battery researcher, about the importance of building a better battery.

You don’t need me to tell you about the importance of batteries. They’re essential to all those electronic devices – laptops, smartphones, tablets – that have become so critical for 21st century life. They’re also an important (and, at present, to some extent a limiting) factor with respect to more widespread adoption of electric cars. And then there are the “utility-scale batteries” needed for renewable energy sources:

Utility companies will need batteries to stabilize the flow of renewable energy into the grid, plus a better electrical control system to do the switching. People may have these batteries at their houses instead of generators…

…There is a slow march toward improving today’s systems, by 5 or 10 percent a year. Meanwhile, many innovative companies, scientists, and engineers are exploring novel approaches. Many of them may not work. But there is a reasonable chance that a couple may work—and really work, to double or triple energy density and lower cost. If you are a battery company and your cost per unit of storage doesn’t drop by a factor of two in the next five years, you are going to be out of business. (Source:  Atlantic Monthly)

One of those “novel approaches” was announced last year by researchers at the University of Illinois, who:

… have developed a new lithium-ion battery technology that is 2,000 times more powerful than comparable batteries. According to the researchers, this is not simply an evolutionary step in battery tech, “It’s a new enabling technology… it breaks the normal paradigms of energy sources. It’s allowing us to do different, new things.” (Source: Sebastian Anthony of Extreme Tech.)

As electronics engineers, those of us at Critical Link like to stay on top of what’s happening in the battery world, out of both general interest, and because of the implications that battery development holds for the applications that our clients develop.

Critical Link has a long history with defense applications, and battery life is a huge issue for future defense programs. One example: we’ve done work on mesh networking for defense applications, which can enable networks of unattended sensors in the field. Unattended networks have a lot of advantages to the warfighter…persistent eyes, ears, and even noses in the field without putting soldiers at constant risk. But what good is that if you have to physically get to each sensor to change the battery every few days?

We’ll be following the “better battery” story closely. From our viewpoint, it’s a lot more important than someone building a better mousetrap (at least to those of us who a) don’t have mice; b) still know how to bait the old spring trap).