The future of humanity may well depend on our ability to move away from our dirty and dwindling supply of fossil fuels as fast as possible. To steer ourselves and our planet in the right direction, we have to find another way to feed our civilization’s need for a reliable supply of energy.
Nuclear power may well be part of the solution for the near term, but the need to manage depleted radioactive fuel for centuries makes nuclear energy as environmentally problematic as the fossil fuels it replaces. At best, we should only consider it a bridge to more sustainable forms of power.
Fortunately for the human race, renewable energy is finally becoming competitive. To make it truly transformative, though, we also need to reinvent a technology most of us take for granted: the battery.
Saving Power for Later
Utility companies are responsible for delivering power at all hours, under all conditions. That’s the central challenge in building a grid powered by renewable energy: you can’t generate wind power on a still day or solar power on a cloudy one, and you can’t tweak the weather to boost power production during times of peak demand. To ensure we continue to have abundant, consistent electricity in a post-fossil fuel age, we need grid-scale ways to store hydroelectric, solar, and wind power for later use and move it to where it’s needed.
The most common rechargeable batteries in use today are lithium ion (Li-ion). Li-ion batteries can pack a lot of energy into a small, lightweight package that charges quickly, retains a charge for a long time, and can be recharged many times before wearing out. However, they aren’t currently able to scale to the size a power grid demands. That’s one reason why battery research and development attracted $480 million in venture capital in the first six months of 2017 alone.
The next generation of energy storage seems to be on the verge of breaking out. Keep an eye on these technologies currently in development:
- Batteries made of graphene – a one-atom-thick layer of graphite that conducts energy faster and more efficiently than any other material on earth – charge and discharge dozens of times faster than standard lithium-ion batteries, can be charged to full in less time, and store an enormous amount of power for their size. One company is already producing graphene batteries for use in electric cars.
- A battery made from cheap, plentiful sodium needs to be much bigger than a lithium-ion battery to hold the same charge. That makes sodium batteries impractical for portable devices – but ideal for homes, office buildings, or the grid itself. In fact, you’ll probably be able to buy cost-effective sodium batteries for household energy storage within the next few years.
- A lithium-sulphur (Li-S) battery could store two to three times as much power in the same space as a lithium-ion battery, or the same amount of power in half to one-third the size. So far, though, Li-S batteries don’t last long, so researchers don’t expect a commercial version for five to 10 years.
- Lithium combined with air could store twice as much power as a lithium-ion battery of the same size (or the same amount of power in a battery half the size). Like Li-S batteries, though, Li-air batteries have a longevity problem researchers say it will likely take 10 years to solve.
- Solid-state batteries developed by Toyota scientists can completely charge or discharge in just eight minutes and, because they do not contain liquid as other batteries do, should continue working in temperatures from boiling to well below freezing. However, these batteries are still under development, with no clear timeline for commercial availability and applications.
Other possibilities at early stages of development include batteries made with a fire-retardant solid polymer, batteries that are 3D-printed from copper foam, lightweight, long-lasting miniaturized solid-oxide fuel cells, gold nanowires that can be recharged 200,000 times with no loss of capacity, and a wearable nanofilm that captures and stores energy from friction and body motion.
Researchers in the UK have even used nanogenerators to build a phone that charges its own batteries using ambient sound – including the voice of the person talking into the phone. And in a development that could redefine how we think about energy storage, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology is working with Italian sports car manufacturer Lamborghini to build an electric “supercar” that doesn’t even have a battery in the conventional sense – because it can store energy in its body panels made of lightweight carbon nanotubes.
Getting Charged Up About Batteries’ Potential
Businesses and governments alike are finally recognizing the potential of being able to store power at grid scale and investing accordingly. Automotive manufacturers are setting up divisions to leverage their existing investments in electric cars into energy-storage solutions for the residential and commercial market. Airplane manufacturers are experimenting with lightweight battery-driven propulsion systems. Governments worldwide are rolling out subsidies to encourage cost-saving, industry-disrupting battery innovations. In fact, in a test the entire world should be watching, Elon Musk’s Tesla worked with French renewable energy company Neoen to build the world’s biggest Li-ion battery installation in South Australia in autumn 2017. Construction ended November 23, and the battery is now undergoing charging and testing before it’s put to work supplementing the local utility’s power grid by storing enough wind energy to power 30,000 homes.
The battery revolution isn’t merely about charging your phone just once a week or driving your electric car 1,000 miles without plugging in. It’s about enabling a society-wide transformation with massive ramifications. Developing better ways to store energy will create new job opportunities, not just at battery manufacturers, but across the economy as we retool and build out an infrastructure that relies on renewable energy sources. Less expensive, more environmentally friendly sources of power will play a vital role in the growth of circular business models that recapture and reuse resources. The power grid will have the decentralized reserves of power it needs to remain resilient even as it increases its reliance on renewable sources.
Scientists say we have just a few more years to mitigate man-made climate change before it reaches a tipping point that tumbles us into an extremely unpleasant future – so we need to make the transition to a sustainable post-fossil-fuel world as quickly as possible. By allowing us to use power more efficiently and store it more effectively, the next generation of batteries will do more than just help smooth the inevitable turbulence of that societal shift. The energy storage systems we develop today may actually contain the future of civilization.
Dan Wellers is the Digital Futures global lead and senior analyst at SAP Insights. Michael Rander is the global research director for Future of Work at SAP.