As you may or may not know, lithium-ion batteries have become the gold standard in various aspects of our lives. Whether it’s our smartphones, laptops, or even cars, lithium-ion is the go-to pick for manufacturers.
That being said, it does have its fair share of flaws. For instance, it could literally explode — such was the case with the Samsung Galaxy Note 7. They’re also not the best when it comes to surviving extreme temperatures.
We’re not even talking about temperatures that are beyond normal use cases. For instance, damage starts to occur in lithium-ion batteries when they’re charged at temperatures above 45 degrees celsius.
It’s not at all uncommon for batteries to get that hot if the phone is being used for heavy tasks such as gaming while plugged into the charger. Fortunately, it seems as though scientists are making significant breakthroughs in the durability element of lithium-ion batteries.
The “Invincible” Battery
Let’s start with a basic disclaimer: this battery isn’t invincible. In reality, nothing is. You could build the best smartphone battery in the world but it still wouldn’t survive a WW3-scenario nuclear explosion.
The scientists at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory are getting us closer to the point of invincibility than ever before though. This battery, which was created in collaboration with researchers from the University of Maryland, is insanely durable.
They claim it can be soaked in liquid, cut, and shot without any interruption in power ever occurring. While it was first unveiled in 2017, they decided that it still wasn’t resilient enough, so they decided to make the battery fireproof as well in late 2019.
You can’t help but think this is the work of Lucius Fox developing new products for Bruce Wayne. Unlike DC superheroes, however, this battery is very real. Despite being a consumer-grade battery, its voltages are closer to that of commercial competitors.
It goes without saying that Samsung is shedding tear after tear wishing this superbattery was around just a few years ago when their flagship smartphone — that ultimately started spontaneously combusting — was still in development.
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How did they do it?
With such an amazing spec sheet and something that sounds right out of science fiction or a James Bond movie, you’re likely wondering how they actually did it. Well, the secret lies in the electrolyte.
If you read our Beginners Guide to Battery Technology, then you’re already familiar with the anatomy of lithium-ion cells. In essence, the electrolyte is the catalyst that allows ions — electrically charged atoms — to move back and forth between the cathode and the anode.
This is how a battery charges and discharges.
Most lithium-ion batteries that are currently on the market use electrolytes made out of lithium salts (highly flammable) and a mix of toxic liquids. That makes regular batteries a literal ticking time bomb — a volatile cocktail just waiting to go off.
For a short circuit to occur, all it takes is the barrier between the anode and cathode to crumble. Events like these produce a ton of heat. So you have heat, and you have flammable materials… it really doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see what’s wrong with the batteries of old.
The risks only get bigger when you consider the fact that the cathode in the battery is rich in oxygen, further fueling the flame on your shiny new phone. If you ask even a two-year-old, they’ll tell you that the answer to fire is water — and these researchers agree.
Aqueous Batteries: Solution or New Problem?
Aqueous batteries have long been an area of interest for battery researchers as they’re immune to most of the problems you’d normally see with your run-of-the-mill lithium-ion cell. These batteries use electrolytes that are water-based.
This means that they’re inherently nonflammable not to mention devoid of any toxic chemicals. It’s worth noting that aqueous batteries are nothing new. In fact, they’ve been making their rounds on the energy scene for the past 25 years.
They’ve always been too weak to be practical in virtually any application though. However, the APL team changed this. By raising the concentration of lithium salts in the battery and mixing in a polymer with the electrolyte, they’ve managed to raise the potential from 1.2V to 4V.
A 2.8V increase may not seem like a lot, but this is electric potential over 230% higher than anything we’ve seen in aqueous batteries before. The 4V-mark finally makes this safer, water-based battery comparable to commercial lithium-ion cells.
If you watch their YouTube video showcasing the revolutionary battery, you’ll see them fully submerge it in saltwater, expose it to direct flames via a blowtorch, and more. In fact, all they had to do was cut off the charred part of the battery and it still ran normally for 100 hours.
In every single test, the battery never wavered in its delivery of power — something that is not only counterintuitive but would’ve never been feasible just a few years ago. The flexible nature of their battery also makes it a good candidate for smartphones.
Who wants it?
As we mentioned, its flexibility opens the door to higher battery capacities in smartphones — though it’s not yet clear how it would hold up against the fast chargers on the market — so it shouldn’t be surprising if Apple or OnePlus has already made calls to the researchers.
Jeff Maranchi, materials science program manager at Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory, said that the team is currently talking with manufacturers who want to integrate this brand new form factor into their lithium-ion production lines.
According to him, it could hit the mass market in two years. No one would be shocked if Elon has already shot a Twitter DM their way. After getting the Model 3 classified as the safest car ever built by the NHTSA, why wouldn’t Tesla want to step things up with an invincible battery?
Whether it’s Tesla, BBK Electronics, or Dell, there’s no doubt that the demand is there.