The world of battery technology is one that few but hardcore physics nerds venture into with any enthusiasm, yet it could be the place where the next big energy revolution is catalysed.
As Scott Nyquist, a leading energy expert at consultancy McKinsey & Partners puts it: “Reliable and efficient storage is the missing link for renewables.”
Being able to efficiently and economically store the energy generated by solar, wind, wave and other intermittent sources has long been recognised as the main obstacle to the takeover of the energy world by clean and renewable providers.
But progress on battery technology has been painfully slow, which means that sources of “base load” power – still mainly from fossil fuels, or nuclear in a few countries such as France – are needed to keep the lights on.
In this year’s annual letter from Bill and Melinda Gates, the Microsoft founder provided – via a handwritten margin note – a worked-out example of how far current battery technology is from being economic.
Even using state-of-the-art lithium ion technology – the kind used in laptops – the average American home would need to install a battery weighing more than a tonne, and costs are such that it would triple electricity bills, Mr Gates calculated.
The maths work out at least as bad for households in Europe and developing countries, like India.
It would require “an energy miracle” to overcome the challenge, he said, although adding “when I say ‘miracle,’ I don’t mean something that’s impossible.”
So there has been a ripple of excitement – at least among the battery cognoscenti – over the past few weeks since a young technology company, 24M, led by Taiwanese-American MIT scientist, Yet-Ming Chiang, unveiled its lithium ion technology breakthrough.
The technology that has been dominant for decades has required extremely thin – no thicker than 0.1 millimetre – electrodes to accommodate the slow pace of Li-ions transmission, says Sung Change, an editor at Physics Today, an academic journal.
The current technology also involves a process to quick-dry the liquid electrolyte, which requires very large factory space to accommodate the huge reels employed.
Mr Chiang has developed magnetic alignment technology that no longer requires such minuscule surfaces, and his process uses a semi-solid rather than liquid electrode.
How does this represent a revolutionary change? Because it eliminates the need for huge factories for quick drying.
Not only are the costs of the new design half that of the current ones, but Mr Chiang feels that it could change the economics of the entire industry. The much simpler manufacturing process means that entry will no longer require US$1 billion, but rather a start-up plant could be built for as little as $12 million, he says.
Peter Kelly-Detwiler, the founder of North Bridge Venture Partners, which has invested in 24M, points out that the fledgling company’s technology has been developed so that it can accommodate any new developments in the chemistry of lithium ion batteries.
Indeed, technology is moving quickly even in Mr Chiang’s space. As Sung Change, the physicist, points out, a technology similar to 24M’s – using magnetic realignment on graphite – was independently developed in Switzerland in a joint project led by Claire Villevieille at the Paul Scherrer Institute and André Studart at ETH Zürich.
Is this the beginning of that seismic shift for energy? Or could this be another false dawn like so many that have crumbled dreams of miracle breakthroughs in, say, the nuclear fusion field?
The answer may come quickly as 24M has been heavily backed by a group of large international companies, including Thailand’s main energy company, PTT, and it plans to build its first factory next year.
A note of caution from Mr Nyquist, who points out that while the storage technology penetration in the electricity industry has been rapid it is not widespread and still relatively small. A record 221 megawatts of storage capacity was installed in the United States last year, a threefold increase on the previous year, he notes. But one regional distributor – PJM Interconnection – accounted for nearly three-quarters of last year’s total.
“Think evolution, not revolution – and remember that we need to keep the lights on in the meantime,” he says.
Mr Kelly-Detwiler also recognises that the change will not come overnight. “There is a good distance to go between the current incarnation and an entity that revolutionises the industry,” he wrote in a Forbes.com blog. “But the company has solid investors and serious partners [and] will be worth watching in the years to come.”
It is certainly the kind of technology that a country like the UAE, with its ambitions to be at the forefront of the industry through Masdar and other initiatives to harness solar energy, needs to keep a close eye on.
Follow The National’s Business section on Twitter