back to article Boffins develop 'practically free' sulphur-powered batteries

Scientists at Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) in the USA have demoed a battery technology that makes two radical departures from the past: the main material is the superabundant sulphur, and it's an all-solid battery without a liquid electrolyte. Lithium-sulphur combinations have all the characteristics needed to create …

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Technology like this hopefully will help electric cars fulfill their potential (and actually be environmentally and financially friendly as they are neither now, not to mention range). Coupled with sustainable clean power generation this could be just what's needed! If they can be made cheaply enough and light enough to swap out or have a fast recharge time there's real potential here. Would love to see this make its way into a superbike.

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Baked

...in the form of Lightning Motorcycles first model, albeit with today's battery technology. Also the Mission R should be pretty good too.

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Re: Baked

I had a look when they announced them but they're 30-60k! Thats rich even by duke standards. Hopefully we will continue to see advancements like this and benefit from sanely priced electric vehicles with decent ranges. Couple that with more fission \ fusion and renewables and we should have a decent proposition!

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WTF?

Re: Baked

Thats rich even by duke standards.

And the rest. The upper end of that's more than a ruddy Honda NR750 cost new......and those were considered eye-wateringly expensive, as you'd expect of a hand-made, limited production machine.

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You need to charge batteries, often overlooked

The only viable way to run electric cars is putting a diesel-electric drive train in it. Whichever battery gets invented, you need to invent a grid that can handle a millions of commuters hooking up at the approx the same time in waves as you pass the timezones.

Since current girds are already creaking at near collapse under the vagaries of variable energy production this particular pipedream will need to be postponed till a grid gets invented and installed that is capable.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: You need to charge batteries, often overlooked

"a grid that can handle a millions of commuters hooking up at the approx the same time in waves as you pass the timezones."

Don't know where you are, but this particular problem doesn't figure high on the UK's list of problems with energy supply.

EVs charge overnight. UK overnight electricity demand is currently very very roughly 10GW less than daytime. There's not really enough capacity for forecast peak demand in ten years time but that's another story and for next year at least we're probably OK. 10GW charges a lot of EVs (say maybe a million on 10kW fast chargers), especially when you're starting from an installed base of basically zero which is increasing at a rate of approximately zero.

See e,g, http://gridwatch.templar.co.uk

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Re: You need to charge batteries, often overlooked

I feel you may be overestimating their sales.

However the grid could be an issue but adoption will be slow and the grid can evolve. I think what is happening is a difference in experience. Having lived in the UK and the US I can understand why it would be a concern for Americans. Their grid is about as stable as pisshead on a tightrope. There simply isn't the investment and hasn't been for a long time. My experience in the UK was that barring wankers in jcb's and the rare blizzard power was pretty solid. In nearly 30 years I can think of 4 power cuts, 2 of which were idiot induced and one of which was the result of living in the middle of nowhere connected to the grid by kite string and pixie dust. Stateside it seems to be more frequent.

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Re: Baked

The Lightning supposedly costs $38,888 which is about the same price as a new Ducati 1098R in the UK. I think the Lightning is very slightly faster... Certainly rarer.

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Mushroom

Er, Wow!

x10ish battery capacity using cheap materials? That's pretty good, and deserves an icon at least.

<--- This one seems appropriate!

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This could be a solution to a problem presented by sustainable energy sources, namely that their output does not correspond with our energy consumption. If these batteries are really so cheap, energy could be stored and used later without too much cost or pollution.

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"If these batteries are really so cheap, energy could be stored and used later without too much cost or pollution"

Unlikely. Just because the raw materials are cheap, that doesn't mean the end product will be. Also, even with 7x better energy density, it's still only about one third the energy density of wood. That's going to be one large battery you'll need.

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Renewable energy storage

If the raw materials are plentiful and cheap, you don't need a large energy density. Imagine that you could make a battery out of (say) Silicon dioxide and Calcium carbonate. You'd just pile up enough of it to solve the problem. It's only if the battery has to move its own mass around, as in a 'leccy car, that energy density becomes critical.

Sulfur is cheap and plentiful, Lithium rather less so.

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Re: Renewable energy storage@Nigel 11

"If the raw materials are plentiful and cheap, you don't need a large energy density."

Except that if it has low energy density then the costs of the "container" and electrical connections become increasing part of the completed cost. For grid applications it isn't like taking a D cell, and simply building exactly the same thing the size of a dustbin.

Also, building a battery for network scale energy storage has never been limited by the cost of the materials - if it worked for a few thousand cycles, and if the efficiency were adequate, then the power sector would have leapt at it, even with very high costs - peak rate despatchable power on the grid gets very high prices. But to take something of a few grammes and scale it up to make sense for the network, then you've got all manner of charge and discharge considerations - the battery must be robust for different environments (eg extremes of temperature), it must be capable of rapid discharge, it must not have excessive self discharge, it must not lose too much energy during the charge and discharge. Almost every one of these is a problem with any battery technology. Now factor in the fact that you need something the size of the house or a warehouse, think about the connectivity of the individual cells for a solid electrolyte, and you've got wiring complexity that makes a data centre look like a school project.

For grid applications you'd actually be going the other way, probably looking to high temperature liquid electrolytes (eg molten salt technologies), since they support the necessary high discharge rates, have respectable energy densities, and in an industrial setting the temperature needs can be managed. But even they have, in the real world, much lower energy densities than you might get in the lab, and cost too much to justify their widespread adoption.

It's a lovely idea, but I'll wager that dry electrolyte systems won't be able to deliver bulk power needs of either transport or the grid in your lifetime.

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Energy carrier.

It can solve some of it, in some cases, but it is more a solution for transport than anything else. What we really need a new energy carrier. Since not only does the energy production capacity necessarily correlate with consumption in time, but quite often not in space either.

The trick with oil is not that it is a good energy source, but rather that it is a great energy carrier. In fact it is so good that I struggle to mention any other that can compare.

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"the main material is the superabundant sulphur*"

Did I miss the footnote?

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You spell it sulphur, I spell it ...

I expect it was to explain why Richard was using the deprecated spelling, which was changed to sulfur in the 90s with agreement from IUPAC and RSC (in return USizens have to spell aluminium correctly). I don't know what happened to it, though.

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Re: You spell it sulphur, I spell it ...

"sulphur" ..... "polysulfide" .... hmmm.

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Re: You spell it sulphur, I spell it ...

Soulfur ?

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Re: You spell it sulphur, I spell it ...

"I expect it was to explain why Richard was using the deprecated spelling, which was changed to sulfur in the 90s with agreement from IUPAC and RSC (in return USizens have to spell aluminium correctly). I don't know what happened to it, though."

Which they always remember to do...

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Re: You spell it sulphur, I spell it ...

When I hear an American pronounce aluminium as AL-oo-MIN-ee-um instead of a-LOOM-in-um as well as spelling it correctly, then I'll start spelling the name of Element 16 as sulfur instead of sulphur.

I'm still spelling it sulphur so far...

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Anonymous Coward

Wonder if this is DIYable

Folks are fed up with these draconian Li+ postal restrictions, if we could simply make them at home from common or garden chemicals then this problem would vanish.

Even double Li-Ion volumetric capacity would blow NiMH out of the water and e-bike enthusiasts would consider rebuilding their pack once a year as a small price to pay for full recyclability..

I actually considered trying a similar approach using the somewhat safer Mg-ion system, using dehydrated washing up liquid doped with magnesium carbonate as the electrolyte, foils coated with carbon and homemade FePO4 from Coke Zero (tm) .. yes the capacity and cycle life would suck but so what.

Turns out that at least one brand of aluminium adhesive foil can be used in this way, glued to recycled glass

cut to shape in order to avoid the use of rolled Al.

AC x520

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Black Helicopters

excellent

the bi-monthly 'new battery technology with revolutionise the world' story.

I swear we get 5 or 6 of these a year. What the hell happens to them all ??

Is exxon and bp out there paying the universities with wads of used notes to keep their mouth shuts ?*

*where's my tinfoil hat by the way - I swear I left it on my desk.... damn oil companies have stolen my tinfoil hat..

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Re: excellent

In the case of NiFe just follow the patent stream which came to an abrupt end after Exide bought up the rights. Much easier to sell deep cycle Lead Acids that still fail <10 years than sell a product that you will pass on to your children.

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Re: excellent

"In the case of NiFe just follow the patent stream which came to an abrupt end after Exide bought up the rights."

If true [0] that would be a great example to hightlight for those campaigning for 'use it or lose it' conditions to be placed on certain IP rights such as patents. Reminds me, I haven't seen The Man In The White Suit for a few decades.... must dig that out.

[0] Not saying it's untrue - just that this is the internet and i've not researched it myself !

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Re: excellent

Regarding NiFe cells, they had been being made for 70 years before Exide bought Edison's old company.

that does seem like long enough for people to have done meaningful experimentation.

Likewise, the only 'rights' Exide could have bought were patents which hadn't yet expired and trade secrets, and any of those patents would have expired decades ago.

In any case, company XYZ having a patent on a particular twist on a technology doesn't stop some other company taking the more general technology and developing it, or even taking the patented tech and developing that with an eye to releasing products as soon as the patents expire.

While they might last longer than lead-acids, NiFe cells don't seem to have performance as good for things like vehicle batteries - similar energy/kg, lower energy/volume, lower power/kg

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Re: excellent

According to wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nickel%E2%80%93iron_battery

Due to its low specific energy, poor charge retention, and high cost of manufacture, other types of rechargeable batteries have displaced the nickel–iron battery in most applications

Lots more interesting stuff. No mention of Exide. The batteries are out there and in use, in places where the weight of the battery is less important than its reliability or ruggedness. They're under review for renewable energy storage. For automotive use, weight is important, as is energy retention (cars are left unused for weeks, occasionally months) and for a fuel-driven car the battery is dead weight except for the few seconds when you are starting the engine. Doesn't sound like a competitor for lead-acid to me.

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Re: excellent

I wonder the same thing every time I see one of these stories. It's always "X material is going to change batteries forever" and then said tech never makes it to the market. Perhaps there's an artificial black hole deep in the bowls of LHC eating all the battery research?

Or maybe marketing is a popular minor for student battery boffins.

Or perhaps there is a conspiracy keeping things quiet.

So many possibilities, so little battery life left. *sigh*

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Happy

Re: excellent

Now that's funny!

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Re: excellent

My thoughts exactly too.

It's not battery companies or oil companies buying and burying patents, it's a university student's fabricated project to get their bit of paper.

This is another bunch of graduate students bigging up some bullshit for their theses so they can get their degrees. Once they have those they'll go on to their cushy desk jobs, the battery plans will disappear into an archive box in the university library's basement, and shit will go on as always.

This has happened so often it's completely destroyed the credibility of the university system as far as I'm concerned. This is why, when I'm hiring and an applicant presents me with a university degree, I just toss it straight back at them. I'm not interested in pieces of paper that tell me you can bullshit a professor, I want to see what you can do. Can't show me? Thanks for coming, good luck in your future endeavours.

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Anonymous Coward

"Hot new battery technologies need a cooling off period"

"Boffins build ant-sized battery, claim it's tough enough to start a car"

"Doped nanotubes boost lithium battery power three-fold"

"Dying to make greener batteries"

"Korean boffins discover secret to quick-charge batteries"

"Stanford boosts century-old battery tech"

and so on....

One day, one of these might turn out to actually work outside the lab and to the promised specifications, but I won't hold my breath.

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Anonymous Coward

yeah!

I'm still waiting for someone to find a use for the spinning Jenny!

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Anonymous Coward

Re: yeah!

The Spinning Jenny never existed in some academics lab. It was invented by James Hargreaves, in the early 18th century, and he put it to use in his textile mills.

The difference between James Hargreaves and the academics publicising these battery "breakthroughs" is that Hargreaves risked his own money whereas the battery researchers are risking (and seeking) other peoples money.

At some point somebody might well make a significant breakthrough in battery technology but I wont believe it until I see it.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: yeah!

Sorry, of course you're right. Nothing of any use ever came out of an "academics lab". Don't I look foolish...

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Anonymous Coward

Lucas Electric Vehicles,1980s called, your sodium-sulphur battery experience is needed

So, what did happen to the sodium sulphur batteries from the 1980s, and (given the relationship between sodium and lithium) what's going to be different with lithium sulphur?

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Anonymous Coward

Re: Lucas Electric Vehicles,1980s called, your sodium-sulphur battery experience is needed

Should obviously have written Lucas Chloride Electric Vehicles. Sorry Mr Edwardes (even if I would prefer to forget you completely).

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Re: Lucas Electric Vehicles,1980s called, your sodium-sulphur battery experience is needed

Sodium-sulphur batteries are being used as stationary power storage but they have a nasty habit of catching fire at which point lots of burning sodium and sulphur means they take a lot of putting out -- the fire in a 1MWh Na-S battery at the NGK offices in Japan took two weeks to extinguish.

http://www.ngk.co.jp/english/news/2011/1007.html

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Re: Lucas Electric Vehicles,1980s called, your sodium-sulphur battery experience is needed

And you don't want to be in downwind proximity to a large pile of burning Sulfur. Not the most toxic of materials, but most definitely unpleasant ( S + air -> SO2 + water -> H2SO3 + more air -> H2SO4).

I read about a proposal to use sodium-sulfur batteries in electric cars in (I think) the 1980s, and I thought it was one of the craziest ideas I'd ever read. I thought, like putting a shock-sensitive detonator in a petrol tank. (Now they're talking about CNG ... at least a CNG cylinder can't not be tough).

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Re: Lucas Electric Vehicles,1980s called, your sodium-sulphur battery experience is needed

"downwind proximity to a large pile of burning Sulfur."

Sulfur dioxide is a VERY toxic material by inhalation.

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Re: Lucas Electric Vehicles,1980s called, your sodium-sulphur battery experience is needed

Are you confusing hydrogen sulphide? (which is about as toxic as hydrogen cyanide, except that you're more likely to notice the rotten-eggs smell in time to make a hasty escape).

Sulfur Dioxide isn't in that league, and there are many things much more toxic than cyanide.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: Lucas Electric Vehicles,1980s called, your sodium-sulphur battery experience is needed

My old fella lead the r&d of these sodium/sulphur batteries in the 70s for a large involved company. The sodium had to be in a liquid state to make it work - so quite hot, and dangerous. The sodium and sulphur was divided by a ceramic electrolyte called beta alumina, as I recall. The cell was one long metal cylinder with a concentric beta alumina tube down it. On the inside of the ceramic tube was the sulphur and between the outside of the ceramic tube and in the inside of the metal outer cylinder was the molten sodium (could have been the other way round, too long ago now). To keep the Na and S apart, the gap between the ceramic tube and the metal outer cylinder was closed using a glass-type o-ring. The problem was the o-ring - getting it to expand/contract at the same rate as the ceramic and outer metal cylinder. Having the o-ring fail resulted in... catastrophic failure. Making sure the Na did not overheat was also... desirable. Can't think why they never caught on.

I worked there once as a summer job (nepotism, oh yes). I got the job of constructing a cell temperature l.e.d. readout box - essentially a box of electronics connected to sensors on the cells.

It was interesting stuff.

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Flame

Re: Lucas Electric Vehicles,1980s called, your sodium-sulphur battery experience is needed

Sodium Sulphur batteries have to run at 300-350 degrees C. This makes it a little inconvenient for mobile applications.

Phil.

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Re: Lucas Electric Vehicles,1980s called, your sodium-sulphur battery experience is needed

Sodium Sulphur batteries run at 300-350 degrees C. A bit inconvenient for mobile use.

Phil.

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Childcatcher

Re: Lucas Electric Vehicles,1980s called, your sodium-sulphur battery experience is needed

Put out a sodium sulphur fire!! I mean you are not going to put water on it are you?

The same sort of issue was at the back of my mind when I read the words lithium sulphur. All I could hear was the word BANG. Just mix a bit of carbon and ammonium nitrate in there and you will have a fine battery.

That is the problem with high energy density batteries: they are quite close to being a bomb.

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Childcatcher

Re: Lucas Electric Vehicles,1980s called, your sodium-sulphur battery experience is needed

Sulphur dioxide, if I remember my chemistry is not so much toxic i.e. poisonous but as it dissolves in water (rather badly as I recall) to form sulphurous and sulphuric acid it is an extreme irritant and not good for your health.

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Re: Lucas Electric Vehicles,1980s called, your sodium-sulphur battery experience is needed

"Are you confusing hydrogen sulphide?"

NO, I'm a chemist - hydrogen sulfide IS VERY toxic but sulfur dioxide is also toxic at the 10 ppm kind of level. One of the major hazards of carbon disulfide, a extremely flammable solvent is the rapid production of sulfur dioxide during a fire. Although many materials are more toxic than sulfur dioxide the fact that 32 g of sulfur can produce 22.4L of sulfur dioxide which is still toxic when diluted with ~ 2 million litres of air would concern me.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: My old fella lead the r&d of these sodium/sulphur batteries in the 70s

Your penis developed batteries in the 70s! Wow!

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Hot?

It doesn't have to run at 190C or something inconvenient?

The original sulphur batteries needed an auxiliary battery to melt them to start operation.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: Hot?

If you read the article at all you might have picked up these are SOLID ergo do not require melting.

I thought there were enough clues.

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Re: Biggest Clue of all:

This quote: "enabled the ORNL battery to maintain a capacity of 1200 milliamp-hours (mAh) per gram after 300 charge-discharge cycles at 60 degrees Celsius."

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