Monday, July 19, 2021

"The Battery Revolution Is Just Getting Started"

After many years of tracking battery hype and hope I have to guard against getting more jaded and cynical than I already am regarding chemistries and manufacturing technology, and consciously entertain the idea that, "no, really, this is the new, new thing that will actually scale up."

It's sort of the Holy Grail of inventors, V.C.'s, and other investors.

From the brainiacs at IEEE Spectrum, July 15:

Many more fortunes will be made before the battery boom runs its course

How I loved the Macintosh Portable, Apple’s first laptop, which I bought shortly after it was introduced in 1989. Today, my infatuation seems pretty incomprehensible, though. The thing cost US $7,300. Its display had no backlight. And, most crushingly, the unit weighed more than 7 kilograms (16 pounds)—much of that weight from a lead-acid battery.

Thirty-two years later, our laptops are powered by much, much lighter lithium-ion or lithium-polymer batteries. My lap is relieved, but the battery life is the same—it’s still about 10 hours, as it was with the Macintosh Portable. Batteries have gotten a whole lot better, but they have not gotten Moore’s-Law better.

We’re living in battery-powered times. Incredible amounts of capital are going into gigaplants that produce millions of battery cells per day, and there are rivers of cash flowing to R&D on advanced batteries. There are fortunes to be made and new megacorporations to be built. Not only will batteries be needed for our phones, laptops, power tools, cars, ships, and planes, but also to store energy from renewable sources. Batteries are key to decarbonizing our economies.

It would be great if batteries could improve exponentially, à la Moore’s Law. But it’ll never happen. Gordon Moore himself told us so in his seminal 1965 magazine article, in which he predicted that we would be able to double the number of components in a digital integrated circuit every year for the next 10 years (turns out he was a pessimist). He also said that the same sort of performance increase would not happen for devices that needed to store energy.

In digital electronics, all you need to do is detect a voltage—or not—to establish whether a binary digit is a “1” or a “0.” The actual amount of current the voltage can drive does not really matter. So you can repeatedly halve the amount of matter in each transistor and still have a working circuit. For batteries, however, we need to store energy in a material, using a reversible mechanism so that we can tap that energy later. And because we pack that matter as full of energy as we can, halving the amount of matter halves the amount of energy we can store. No Moore’s Law. Not ever....


Also at IEEE Spectrum:
Chart: Behind the Three-Decade Collapse of Lithium-Ion Battery Costs