Batteries: The Power of Portable Power

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From primitive jars to cells smaller than the eye can see, we explore how batteries have increased in power, decreased in size, and disrupted entire industries in shocking new ways.

Let’s get energized.

Among the many things we can thank American polymath Benjamin Franklin for is the invention of the battery. His primitive device consisted of a jar designed to hold electrical charges passing from one spinning glass tube to another. We’ve come a long way since then. But, what exactly is a battery? It’s a two-sided (positive and negative) chemical reaction container that allows electrons to run from one side to another, and harnesses the electricity generated (the electrolyte). But not all batteries are created equal, and although the quest for perfect power goes back thousands of years, a continuous current could not be harnessed until 1800 with copper, zink, and a saltwater cloth.

Ever ready for a battery breakthrough.

Thomas Edison’s turn of the 20th Century endeavors into alkaline batteries didn’t hold a charge, but interest in his mechanics recharged in 1950 when chemical engineer Lewis Urry crushed zinc into a powder, mixed it with manganese dioxide, and created the world’s best battery at the time, revolutionizing the industry by the 1960s. However, single-use alkaline batteries were an environmental headache, as well as a practical one for powering larger machines or more sophisticated electronics: Enter the lithium ion, and it’s smaller size and mighty electronic output. They’re everywhere now, in nearly every device you can think of.

Cars, plastics and renewed interest in renewables.

The electric car is making headway, some 100 years after Henry Ford popularized the automobile and some 40 or so since the lithium ion breakthrough. But to better power these growing industries, it’s crucial to create a battery without a risk of explosion (something several device providers know a thing or two about). The major breakthrough could come from the polymer industry. If we’re able to replace an unstable liquid electrolyte with an indestructible piece of plastic, we can make the battery cheaper, safer, lighter and better suited for the auto industry. Better still: replacing lithium with cheaper and more stable magnesium, or using renewables like solar or wind, could increase wide-scale adoption on and off the road. And that could be the most powerful disruption of all.

“If we look at where these batteries and how much costs need to fall, what we see is that really we’d like to see a reduction in costs from where we are today, [00:11:00] really probably a factor of three.”

– Jessika Trancik, Associate Professor, Institute for Data Systems and Society at MIT

What you’ll hear in this episode:

  • Benjamin Franklin’s other other other contribution to electricity
  • The 2003 heist that prevents us from knowing if batteries were invented 2,000 years ago
  • Getting current with current in 1800
  • Thomas Edison’s other other other underappreciated foray into electronics
  • Zinc powder. (It’s not just for colds.)
  • Lithium proves to be nirvana
  • The battery’s explosive (in some cases literally!) growth
  • Electricity’s potential for a plastic future
  • When will be able to harness the sun and wind for portable power?
  • The current race for making batteries cheaper, safer and more powerful for all

Guest List

  • John Goodenough is known around the world for his pioneering work that led to the invention of the rechargeable lithium-ion battery, which is found in nearly all portable electronics.
  • Jessika Trancik is an associate professor in the Institute for Data, Systems, and Society at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
  • Jay Whitacre is a Trustee Professor in Energy, Engineering and Public Policy; Director of the Wilton E. Scott Institute for Energy Innovation at Carnegie Mellon University. He’s also the co-founder of Aquion Energy.
  • George Crabtree an Argonne National Laboratory Senior Scientist and Distinguished Fellow, is the Director of the Joint Center for Energy Storage Research (JCESR).
  • Mike Zimmerman is the CEO and founder of Ionic Materials, a battery materials company that has invented a polymer to enable solid-state batteries. He’s also a Professor at Tufts University.

Walter Isaacson: Benjamin Franklin was fascinated by electricity. If there’s one image that’s seared in the minds of American school children, it’s Franklin standing in a storm holding his kite, hoping to discover the electrical properties of lightning. The more he learned about electricity, the more intrigued Franklin became, and the more [00:00:30] eager he was to enhance his understanding of the properties of electricity. In one of his first experiments, Franklin had his friends draw charges from spinning glass tubes, and then touch each other to see if sparks flew. The results led him to a conclusion that was revolutionary at the time.

Electricity was a fluid, like a liquid. It wasn’t created by the friction. [00:01:00] It already existed. It passed from one body to another through a process of charging and discharging. It could be collected and conserved, and all of that conserved energy had to be stored somewhere. For that, Franklin employed a primitive device that consisted of glass window panes and thin lead plates. It was called a Leyden jar, and it had been invented a few years earlier [00:01:30] in Holland. Franklin conducted many experiments with a Leyden jar. At one point, he lined up a series of glass plates, flanked by metal, charged them up, wired them together, and created a new device. He called it an electric battery. It was a technology that would go on to revolutionize the world. I’m Walter Isaacson, and you’re listening to Trailblazers, an original podcast from [00:02:00] Dell Technologies.

Speaker 2: Nowadays, we use flashlights and portable radios.

Speaker 3: The source of electrical energy, the battery, must be maintained in proper condition.

Speaker 4: People have become so accustomed to electricity and the many conveniences it provide.

Speaker 5: All atoms contain electricity.

Speaker 6: And there’s your (inaudible) step.

Walter Isaacson: [00:02:30] So, let’s start with the very basic question, what is a battery?

Jay Whitacre : Batteries use chemical reactions to store electricity.

Walter Isaacson: That’s Jay Whitacre  of Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, one of America’s leading battery researchers.

Jay Whitacre : Batteries have two sides. They have an anode and a cathode. That’s the plus side and the minus side that you see labeled on every battery that you use, but what they do [00:03:00] is they create a situation where electrons really want to go from one side to the other when you’re discharging a battery, and when they do that, chemical reactions occur on both sides. At the end of the day, all those electrons moved through the battery is spent, and either you can recharge it, and that’s a rechargeable battery, or you dispose of it, and that’s like an alkaline battery that you might buy at the supermarket.

Walter Isaacson: Let’s review. Batteries have a positively charged anode at one end and a negatively charged cathode at the other. [00:03:30] And electrically charged atoms, known as ions, travel between them and create an electric current. This current powers anything connected to the battery, but there’s a third critical component to the battery. It’s called the electrolyte, and it’s a chemical substance, usually a liquid, that sits between the two poles and allows the ions to flow between them. When they move in both directions, [00:04:00] the battery can be recharged. If they only move one way, it can’t. Cathode, anode, and electrolyte. It sounds pretty simple, but figuring out the right mix of materials that will produce chemical reaction that yield a safe, high energy, and a low cost battery, well, that’s what keeps battery researchers awake at night. George Crabtree is the director [00:04:30] of the Joint Center for Energy Storage at Argonne National Laboratory in Illinois.

George Crabtree: I would say 90% of the ideas for batteries are failures. They’re failures, not because there was something wrong with the idea, but because something unexpected occurred. You put the components together in a battery and suddenly find that the anode is not compatible with a cathode, or one of them is not compatible with the electrolyte, and this is something you could not have predicted. So, [00:05:00] it has been traditionally a very intuitive process. Very Edisonian, trial and error.

Walter Isaacson: In the early years of the 20th century, the great inventor, Thomas Edison, set out to develop a battery to power what he believed would be the dominant transportation mode of the century. The electric car. In 1903, he unveiled a nickel iron rechargeable battery that used potassium hydroxide, [00:05:30] a non-acidic or alkaline compound, for its electrolyte. The problem was that the battery was expensive, and couldn’t hold a charge for very long. So Edison went back to the drawing board, but by the time he emerged with a new and improved version, his moment had passed. In 1908, Henry Ford unveiled his Model T, an inexpensive, reliable car powered by gasoline, [00:06:00] not electricity, with a lead acid battery under the hood. It would be another century before electric cars again captured the public’s imagination, and researchers turned their attention to new kinds of batteries to power them.

But, in the 1950s, Edison’s battery provided the inspiration for the next big battery breakthrough. At the time, most household batteries were made of zinc and carbon, [00:06:30] but had a weak charge. They couldn’t power a motorized toy for more than a few minutes. That was the problem that Lewis Urry set out to solve. He was a 28 year old Canadian chemical engineer, working for the Eveready company in Cleveland. He wondered whether reviving Edison’s idea of an alkaline battery might be a solution. He’d tried manganese dioxide and solid zinc, [00:07:00] but the results weren’t much better. Then, one day in 1957, he crushed the zinc into a powder, and that one modification dramatically increased the battery’s capacity. Eveready’s alkaline battery went on sale in 1959 and revolutionized the battery world. Jay Whitacre.

Jay Whitacre: This is a simple, low cost, very old school chemistry. [00:07:30] It was discovered and invented, you know, a very long time ago. It was adopted into a range of early products. It’s fairly safe, and it’s very inexpensive to manufacture, so there’s costs, there’s heritage, there’s comfort, and there’s the sort of the uniformity of this thing. When I put it together in this way, it gives me one and a half volts for a certain amount of time. So, then you can build electronics, and toys, and whatever else around that particular kind of battery, and that encourages further use.

Walter Isaacson: Alkaline [00:08:00] batteries do have a lot going for them. The downside is that you can’t recharge them. We use them, and toss them, and that causes a couple of problems. The first is environmental. About 86,000 tons of single use alkaline batteries end up in landfills every year, where their toxic chemicals can leach into the soil and groundwater. The second problem is that their usefulness is rather limited. You can’t power a car, [00:08:30] or any of our sophisticated electronic devices, with a battery that can only deliver one and a half volts and can’t be recharged, and you certainly can’t use them to store solar or wind power, and help reduce our reliance on fossil fuel. To do all that, new thinking would be needed. A new kind of battery, and a new trailblazer.

John Goodenough: My name is John B. Goodenough, Professor. I’m in mechanical engineering, and [00:09:00] electrical and chemical engineering departments of the University of Texas at Austin.

Walter Isaacson: John Goodenough’s academic career began in 1946, when the young army veteran headed to the University of Chicago with a dream of studying physics. When he arrived, however, his dreams were quickly dampened. A professor at the school told him that at 23 years old, he was already past his prime. Thankfully, that discouragement did not stop John Goodenough, [00:09:30] because if it had, the world we know would be a very different place. Goodenough persisted, and eventually found a life for himself in academia. His first teaching job, however, wasn’t in physics. It was in chemistry at Oxford, where he found himself during the energy crisis that gripped the western world in the mid 1970s.

John Goodenough: There were a number of people who understood that this dependence on [00:10:00] the energy and fossil fuels is not sustainable, and therefore they had to find ways to get energy sources other than fossil fuels. So, they began to look at how could they harness energy from the wind, and how could they harness energy from the sunlight? Since those energy sources are diffuse, and variable in a very different timescale and demand, you can’t use the energy unless you [00:10:30] can store it. Therefore, it was clear a need to see what you could do to develop a better battery than what we had.

Walter Isaacson: The better battery needed to be rechargeable, and it needed to have a much larger capacity, or energy density, than the 1.5 volts of the standard alkaline battery. It was clear that a new material would be needed to form the basis of this new battery, and the most likely bet [00:11:00] for that material was lithium. Jay Whitacre .

Jay Whitacre : It’s funny. In retrospect, those of us who have worked on this kind of battery chemistry for years now, it all seems kind of self-evident, but it took decades for people to understand how to exactly assemble the right collection of materials, and the right package, to get this kind of performance.

Walter Isaacson: Armed with a solid scientific hunch, John Goodenough got to work.

John Goodenough: So, [00:11:30] the question is, I knew I could get a higher voltage, but I didn’t know how much. We doubled the voltage of the cell. That gave it a much better energy density then you could get otherwise.

Walter Isaacson: By 1980, John Goodenough had completed work on his lithium cobalt oxide cathode. It offered two or three times the energy of any other rechargeable room temperature battery on the market. Many researchers rank John [00:12:00] Goodenough’s development of a lithium-ion cathode right alongside the transistor in terms of its impact on the modern world. They believe he should be awarded a Nobel Prize for his invention, but that prize has never come. Nor has John Goodenough made the kind of money you might expect from someone whose invention has generated billions of dollars in sales. At the time, John Goodenough wasn’t really interested [00:12:30] in the commercial application of his new battery, nor did he ever really see how the lithium-ion battery could be shrunk to power ever smaller portable electronic devices.

John Goodenough: Oh no, I wasn’t that clever. No, I wasn’t thinking that far ahead. I was just interested in the physics.

Walter Isaacson: Today, about two billion [00:13:00] lithium-ion batteries are produced every year. They power your smartphone, digital camera, laptop, drones, cordless power tools, electric cars, pacemakers, hearing aids, and even the Mars Curiosity Rover, but John Goodenough received no royalties for his invention then, or since. His university, Oxford, wasn’t interested in owning intellectual property, so it declined to take [00:13:30] out a patent on the cathode, and there was nothing John Goodenough could do about it.

John Goodenough: By that time, since I didn’t have money to license my patent, I’d given it away. So, I watched it with some dismay.

Walter Isaacson: Dismay, and also some humor.

John Goodenough: Well, it would have been several billion, but what would you do with a billion? It’s a rather heavy burden [00:14:00] to carry.

Walter Isaacson: So today, John Goodenough is focused on the future, not the past, which, at the age of 96 is a pretty impressive achievement all on its own. Like most battery researchers, he’s content to allow the lithium-ion battery to continue to power our games and gadgets. They’re inexpensive, rechargeable, and long lasting, but to power electric [00:14:30] vehicles and to store energy from the wind and the sun, lithium-ion batteries that use a liquid electrolyte fall short on several fronts. The most important is safety. Jay Whitacre.

Jay Whitacre: Lithium-ion batteries. In order to get to the higher voltages, we have to use these solvents as electrolytes, but the solvents are flammable. They’re combustible, and so there is always extra cost and concern about lithium-ion batteries because, [00:15:00] if something goes wrong, if there’s a short, if they overheat, catastrophic fire is possible. And also, if the batteries are not manufactured with very high quality, there’s a higher likelihood of this happening, you know? People have been putting lithium-ion batteries in things that are used for higher power, and there have been explosions and issues.

Walter Isaacson: In 2006, Sony had to recall nearly 10 million laptop batteries due to safety concerns, a scare that impacted several other laptop providers [00:15:30] as well. And in 2016, Samsung had to recall more than a million Galaxy Note 7 smartphones, when their batteries spontaneously combusted. The key to making the lithium-ion battery safer, according to John Goodenough and many other researchers, is replacing the liquid electrolyte with a non-flammable solid. These solid state batteries [00:16:00] would theoretically allow much higher density, and faster recharging, without the risk of explosion. Last year, John Goodenough and his colleagues at the University of Texas announced that they had developed a battery using glass as an electrolyte. They claim it has at least three times as much energy density as the lithium-ion battery. It’s lasted longer, [00:16:30] and could safely recharge in minutes rather than hours. Other researchers have expressed skepticism of Goodenough’s claim, but at his age, and with his place in battery history already secure, he’s not too concerned about what they think.

John Goodenough: Look, everybody’s got something. That’s fine. I’m not to say who’s going to get the best answer. It is my conviction that the old solid state battery, that will eventually [00:17:00] win.

Walter Isaacson: The lithium-ion battery has proven to be remarkably resilient. The search for a replacement has been long, slow, and frustrating. One researcher described it as a Captain Ahab-like quest, but the pace of discovery has quickened in recent years, driven in large part by the need to serve the growing demand for electric cars. [00:17:30] According to the International Energy Agency, the number of electric vehicles on our road will triple, to over 13 million by 2020. That’s a lot of batteries. The giant gigafactory that Tesla has built in the Nevada desert is expected to supply batteries to half a million electric cars per year. All of them will be lithium-ion. There is currently no commercially viable alternative, but [00:18:00] many researchers believe that the current iteration of lithium-ion will ultimately not be what powers the electric car of the future. Bit too costly, too unsafe, too heavy, and don’t have enough energy density to travel the distances that drivers will demand, and so billions of dollars are currently being invested in improving what’s already out there, or developing something entirely new, [00:18:30] and to the winner will go some very large spoils.

Mike Zimmerman: I’m Mike Zimmerman. I’m the founder of Ionic Materials.

Walter Isaacson: Mike Zimmerman’s background is in polymers, better known to most of us as plastics. He’s worked at Bell Labs, and taught material science at Tufts University. You wouldn’t ordinarily expect a polymers person to be involved in battery research, but that’s exactly [00:19:00] what Mike Zimmerman is doing.

Mike Zimmerman: Ionic Materials is a company that’s developed a solid polymer electrolyte. It’s the world’s first polymer that can conduct lithium-ions at room temperature

Walter Isaacson: Like John Goodenough, Mike Zimmerman believes that the future of the lithium-ion battery lies in solid state, because liquid electrolytes are simply too unstable, but unlike [00:19:30] Goodenough, Zimmerman believes that solid should be plastic, not glass.

Mike Zimmerman: There is three different types of materials that had been used for solid electrolytes. One was a ceramic. Another’s a glass, and the third was a polymer. So, the problems with ceramics and glasses are, they’re very brittle and hard to scale up into the right format for making batteries. As a polymers person, I said to myself that a polymer [00:20:00] would be the right way, if one could actually make one that meets all the requirements. So, my idea was to try to develop a new polymer that had a new conduction mechanism that could work as a solid state electrolyte. So, that’s kind of what motivated me to do this.

Walter Isaacson: So, Mike Zimmerman set out to do something that had never been done before. Develop a polymer that was structured like metal, so that when you insert it inside of a battery, [00:20:30] it could conduct ions at room temperature, just like metal conducts electrons.

Mike Zimmerman: Nobody, actually, that had ever done that before, so that was a real eureka moment.

Walter Isaacson: Conductivity is one big selling point for Mike Zimmerman’s polymer. Safety is another.

Mike Zimmerman: These liquid batteries explode, but ours, if you cut them in half, or shoot a bullet through them, they don’t explode, so I think it’s a big deal. I think about people [00:21:00] trying to make batteries for electric cars. It can be very dangerous. I think we are the only ones with a potential solution.

Walter Isaacson: If Mike Zimmerman is right, this could be the boost the electric vehicle industry has been looking for. Replace an unstable liquid electrolyte with an indestructible piece of plastic, and you’ve just made a battery cheaper, safer, and lighter. Getting the chemistry and physics [00:21:30] of the battery of the future right is only one of the challenges facing researchers today. A second big challenge is economic. Jessika Trancik is an associate professor in the Institute for Data, Systems and Society at MIT.

Jessika Trancik: You really can’t disentangle cost from the functionality of the technology. So with many engineering problems, [00:22:00] if you had infinite investment, there are many things that we can do. The question always becomes, can we do that at a reasonable cost? So can we develop this technology? Can we produce it? Can we build it at a reasonable cost?

Walter Isaacson: At MIT, Jessika Trancik focuses on developing renewable energy alternatives for the grid. The challenges she faces are both technical and financial. There are already long established, [00:22:30] fairly inexpensive, nonrenewable options in the marketplace. Displacing them will not be easy. To gain consumer acceptance for renewables, the price of using them will have to be competitive. A lot of progress has already been made on that front. The costs of generating energy with lithium-ion batteries has already dropped significantly. About 73% since 2010, thanks largely to economics of scale, [00:23:00] and technological improvements, but at roughly $250 per kilowatt hour, a lot more still needs to be done.

Jessika Trancik: If we look at where these batteries, and how much the costs need to fall, what we see is that, really, we’d like to see a reduction in costs from where we are today. We would like costs to reach around $50 per kilowatt hour, and that’s the cost of [00:23:30] the energy capacity of the storage system, so if you compare that to cost today of around $200, or $250, per kilowatt hour, you can start to see. It’s not quite an order of magnitude decline, but it’s getting to that level.

Walter Isaacson: Many battery researchers expect the price of lithium-ion batteries will fall to about $100 per kilowatt hour in the not too distant future. Getting down to $50 or  [00:24:00] $60 will take much longer, and it may not even be possible. Lithium-ion has ruled the battery world for more than 30 years, and it will continue to play an important role, but the time is clearly right for disruption. As we’ve seen, there’s no shortage of potential disruptives already working hard on solving some of the very difficult problems. [00:24:30] It’s unlikely that any one technology will emerge triumphant. The battery of the future may actually be several batteries, but one thing that we know for certain is that batteries lie at the heart of the struggle to wean ourselves off fossil fuels in our cars, and homes, and factories.

As scientific challenges go, it doesn’t get much more important than that. [00:25:00] I’m Walter Isaacson, and you’ve been listening to Trailblazers, an original podcast from Dell Technologies. On our next episode, we’ll be looking at the history of watches, and the quartz crisis that threaten to wipe out an entire industry. If you’d like to learn more about John Goodenough, the 96 year old battery maverick we spoke with on today’s show, you can head to our website at DellTechnologies. [00:25:30] com/trailblazers. Again, that’s Thanks for listening.