WIRED on Energy, Amit Katwala, July 30, 2018
The explosive race to totally reinvent the smartphone battery
Lithium-ion batteries power everything from smartphones and laptops to electric cars and e-cigarettes. But, with lithium close to breaking point, researchers are scrambling for the next battery breakthrough.
If you’re reading this on your smartphone, you’re holding a bomb. Beneath a protective screen, lithium – a metal so volatile that it can ignite on contact with water – is being taken apart and reassembled in the intense chemical reaction that powers much of the modern world.
Lithium is in our phones and tablets, our laptops and smartwatches. It’s in our e-cigarettes and our electric cars. It is light, soft and energy dense, which makes it perfect for portable electronics. But, as consumer technology has grown more powerful, lithium-ion batteries have struggled to keep up. And now, just as the world has been gripped by its addiction to lithium, researchers around the world are scrambling to reinvent the batteries powering our world.
Huge glowing screens, faster processing, speedy data connections and a fashion for thinness mean that some smartphones struggle to make it through a day without being charged. Often more than once. After two years, the battery life of some devices falls off a cliff and they are consigned to the scrapheap.
Silvery lithium’s great strength is also its biggest weakness. It’s unstable. It explodes. A lithium-ion laptop battery holds as much energy as a hand grenade. “Having a smartphone in your pocket is like having kerosene in your pocket,” says Mike Zimmerman, the founder and CEO of Ionic Materials.