Today’s Solutions: February 04, 2023

The environmental benefits of using electricity rather than fossil fuels to power our world goes without saying— however, the process of electrifying everything has its obstacles.

One of the greatest obstacles is the limited resources of lithium, nickel, and cobalt which are all used to create batteries. Thankfully, researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) recently innovated batteries that are made of cost-effective and abundant materials.

Researcher and MIT Professor Donald Sadoway, lead author of the study paper, told MIT News that he “wanted to invent something that was better, much better, than lithium-ion batteries for small-scale stationary storage, and ultimately for automotive [uses].”

What’s the problem with lithium-ion batteries?

The main issue with lithium-ion batteries is that the required material to make them is expensive, flammable, and can end up forming spiky dendrites when charged too quickly, which ultimately short out the battery.

Instead of using lithium, Sadoway and the team, which is made up of scientists from China, Canada, Kentucky, and Tennessee selected aluminum for one electrode, which he asserted is “the most abundant metal on Earth… no different from the foil at the supermarket.” 

He combined the aluminum with another electrode sourced from cheap material: sulfur, which he said is “often a waste product from processes such as petroleum refining.” Lastly, he went with a common salt for the electrolyte.

It’s important to note that this new battery isn’t without problems. For instance, the process of extracting alumina out of bauxite is not the easiest or cleanest, and while there are still sulfur pyramids in Alberta, Canada, researchers are concerned that we may one day run out of it. That said, Sadoway made it clear that these issues don’t compare to the problems that come with sourcing ingredients for lithium-ion batteries.

How does the new battery work?

The chloro-aluminate salt that the researchers use in the battery melts at a relatively low temperature, but the battery still runs at a hot 230 degrees Fahrenheit (110 degrees Celsius). On the plus side, both the charging and discharging cycles generate enough heat that the battery can heat itself and doesn’t require an external source.

“You’d store electricity when the sun is shining, and then you’d draw electricity after dark, and you’d do this every day,” Sadoway explained. “And that charge-idle-discharge-idle is enough to generate enough heat to keep the thing at temperature.”

One of the greatest benefits of this kind of battery is its cost. “The estimated cell-level cost of our A1-S battery is as low as US $8.99 per kWh, which is 12-16 percent of today’s lithium-ion batteries.” On top of being a fraction of the price of conventional batteries, they can also be charged very quickly with no risk of forming dendrites.

Could the A1-S battery change the world?

Many in the tech world are excited about the new A1-S battery, with the likes of tech journalist Will Lockett declaring that “MIT has produced yet another breakthrough technology that is set to change the world for the better.”

Source study: Nature— Fast-charging aluminium-chalcogen batteries resistant to dendritic shorting

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