Reimagining The Battery Before We Rethink Our World

Reimagining The Battery Before We Rethink Our World

November 19, 2020

IBM Research Manager, Materials Innovations for Next-Gen Batteries Dr. Young-hye Na discusses sustainable energy in ASEAN and solving the problematic of mass battery storage.

By Dr. Young-hye Na

As the world population grows and developing nations continue to raise their living standards, world energy use is expected to soar 50 percent by 2050, with much of that driven by the industrial and transportation sectors, followed by commercial and residential .
In ASEAN countries, demand for energy has grown by as much as 7.5 percent per year over the past four decades.

This phenomenon may have resulted in increased greenhouse gas emissions, driven primarily by high economic growth and underpinned by increased urbanisation and industrialisation. Approximately 60 per cent of these emissions may come from fossil fuel combustion, with ASEAN currently accounting for 3.5 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions.

This share is expected to increase substantially due to continued population growth and industrial development. ASEAN has set an ambitious target of securing 23 percent of its primary energy from renewable sources by 2025 as energy demand in the region is expected to grow by 50 percent .

Singapore for example, has targeted 200MW of energy storage beyond 2025 and 2GW of solar by 2030 but will continue to rely on natural gas for the next 50 years. The country currently obtains 95% of its electricity supply from natural gas delivered through pipelines from neighbouring counties and global supplies of Liquified Natural Gas (LNG) through its ports. While Singapore aimed to diversify this gas supply, it also looks for alternative energy supply.

To combat this trend and to keep ASEAN on the path to becoming a SMART region, sustainable energy sources are increasingly used to produce power for the electric grid. Only through fuller use of non-carbon renewable energy such as solar, wind and hydropower can we meet that demand without pumping more climate-damaging CO2 into the atmosphere.

However, intermittent renewable sources such as solar and wind require batteries to store and help distribute power to match supply with demand. Sunshine for solar power is, of course, only available during the day. For solar energy systems, power storage in batteries supplements photovoltaic cells during peak demand periods and supplies electricity at night or at other times when sunlight is blocked.

Similarly, wind power is dependent on the weather. For wind power, batteries capture and retain excess power when the wind is strong, but
when demand is weak, they store the unutilised energy.

Therefore, reliable use of renewable energy requires the ability to store it. Right now, the world can store only about 3 percent of the electricity produced globally . The growth of the electric vehicle market is also dependent on the availability of cheaper, safer, and more powerful batteries. In short, the world needs better batteries.

Batteries have become an essential part of our lives. From consumer electronics, machinery, and backup power supply to electric transportation, even to smart grids, battery energy storage has a broad impact that spans industries including healthcare, defence, security, agriculture, automotive/aviation, and renewable energy. It is key to enabling our sustainable energy future.

In Southeast Asia, microgrids that use batteries to store the energy generated by renewables, mainly solar and wind, and to distribute electricity during on/off-peak periods, are a viable and green alternative to the traditional centralised power grid. Batteries also play a lifesaving role when disaster strikes, and the electric supply is disrupted or cut entirely. Hospitals have long backed up their facilities with adequate battery power to provide power to life-sustaining medical equipment in case of power failure.

However, the need extends beyond hospitals. Natural disasters such as earthquakes in Indonesia, and tropical storms in the Philippines and Vietnam occur regularly in parts of ASEAN region. When power and communications are shut off, the stored energy is vital, where at times, tapping car batteries for power might be the only option.

Ensuring that batteries are safe and reliable to use must always be a central component of battery storage technology development. Batteries often use materials that pose environmental and humanitarian concerns.

In the next five years, IBM is proposing to discover new materials for safer and more environmentally-preferable batteries capable of supporting a renewable-based energy grid and more sustainable transportation.

The lithium-ion (Li-ion) battery, lightweight and efficient, is still king when it comes to energy storage. But Li-ion batteries require the use of cobalt and nickel, which pose environmental and health concerns in their mining and production, are in dwindling supply and can be harmful to the environment if the batteries are not disposed of properly. What’s more, cobalt is mainly found in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where human rights groups have long raised concerns of illegal mining, corrupt practices and child labor.

Researchers are now developing Li-ion prototypes with relatively low cobalt content and non-flammable liquid or solid-state electrolytes to improve the safety of Li-ion batteries. But looking beyond the Li-ion battery, IBM is betting that AI and quantum computing can help researchers find new solutions to the energy storage problem.

Using the accelerated discovery cycle, scientists will improve the battery’s performance by finding even safer and more efficient materials. Earlier this year, IBM researchers developed a cobalt- and nickel-free battery that relies on an iodine-based cathode. The researchers showed that the battery could have higher power density, lower flammability and much faster charging times than conventional Li-ion batteries.

The use of quantum computing will become of pivotal importance to improve next-generation technologies, like lithium sulphur batteries, that could be more powerful, longer lasting and cheaper than Li-ion. Next, AI could be aimed at predicting the correct molecular candidates, allowing researchers to lab-test the best options.

The discovery holds potential for electric vehicles, for example, where batteries’ flammability, cost and charging time are all important factors. In current tests, the new battery can reach an 80% state of charge (configured for high power) in less than five minutes. Additionally, it can be designed for a long-life cycle, making it an option for smart power grid applications and new energy infrastructures requiring longevity and stability. IBM Research has joined with Sidus (a battery manufacturer) to develop this innovation toward eventual commercial use.

Batteries will always have adverse environmental impacts, but ongoing development and invention can do much to minimise them. Over the next five years, accelerated discovery of new materials — made possible by AI and quantum computing — will result in better batteries to meet rising global demand for electricity without further raising the temperature of the Earth.

According to IBM Research Manager, Materials Innovations for Next-Gen Batteries Dr. Young-hye Na, different applications require different performance or specifications of batteries.

“Batteries with faster charging and high capacity enabling longer driving range would be preferred for EV application, whereas longevity and stability is key for renewable energy infrastructures and smart grid applications. Batteries’ performance can be controlled for various applications by tuning materials formulations and chemistries, and development of cost-effective and sustainable materials would be a must. One of the benefits of the new battery chemistry we have developed is that it is highly tunable to the requirements of a given application. We have developed different version of the battery that, at the lab scale, excel at energy density, or high power/fast charging, or low temperature operation. Developing the technology to meet the performance needs of the target application is critical,” says Dr. Young-hye.

Looking ahead, climate change is a challenge that requires us to change the way we use, produce and conserve energy, especially if energy demand continues to rise with economic growth. ASEAN’s energy sector will need to evolve in order to achieve our vision of a clean and efficient energy.

(Ed. This editorial is the first in a five-part series discussing new tech initiatives funded by IBM Research. Featured image by Pixabay.)

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