Why the US government shouldn't invest in making batteries more powerful

Posted by Rob Enderle

Why I think a recently announced initiative funded by tax dollars to design a signifcantly more powerful battery is a  bad idea.

I personally own a number of electrical devices, including two electric bicycles and an electric scooter, so you’d probably think I’d be more excited about the US government investing in battery research.    

The problem? The batteries we currently use are already quite dangerous and the government should be focusing on the problem, rather than moving blindly forward. Indeed, designing "better" batteries would be somwhat analogous to creating bigger gas tanks - rather than focusing on better fuel efficiency to solve a range problem. Allow me to elaborate. 

The Real Problem

The problem we are trying to fix isn’t that batteries aren’t powerful enough, but rather, that we need to power devices which are inconvenient to have plugged in. Sure, we could use little generators, like fuel cells, but the issue would then be flammable fuel and you’d still have to carry a bunch of it. If we had broadcast power (a number of folks including Intel are working on this), which Nickola Tesla started researching decades ago, batteries would only be needed for power outages and the requirements would be far lower.  

Interim technologies include inductive charging which Qualcomm has been pitching and can be installed at traffic lights, parking spaces, in roads, and garages to ensure cars with existing batteries never run out of power. But the goal isn’t building bigger batteries, it is providing remote power and batteries are only a stopgap measure. Frankly, it likely would be better if the government focused on distributing power rather than aggregating it.

Why Bigger Batteries Are Bad

I was the leading battery analyst a few years back largely because everyone else who covered this area moved to more lucrative technologies. One of the briefings that stuck with me on Lithium Ion technology is that it has about 1/4th the energy density of dynamite.  

So if you create a hard short it can catch fire catastrophically and burn so hot that it will melt metal, particularly aluminum (which is what airplanes are largely built from) and cause a lot of damage. I was able to see this phenomenon up close and personal when a new battery for one of my electric bikes failed while charging, melted the screws in its fire containment case, fell to the ground, caught the bikes tires on fire and damn near burnt down my house (we were home and fortunately the kitchen smoke alarm went off). 

Interesting side note, alarm companies don’t put smoke alarms in garages, only heat sensors, and heat sensor tend to wait until the structure is on fire before going off.

Over the years, we've had lots of close calls with batteries going up in homes and airplanes but no truly catastrophic event. Now you take that energy density and increase it 5x so it is actually higher than dynamite and the one thing that will change for sure is the number of close calls vs. catastrophes. Meaning, we are likely to have far more of the latter and I can easily see the FAA and its sister organizations in other countries ban batteries.  

This really wouldn’t be all that dissimilar to using gas with 5x the energy potential of regular gas. While it would undoubtedly improve our power and increase our range, such a mixture would also catastrophically reduce our safety.  For example, nitro-methane is currently about 2.5x as powerful as gas (125,412 BTUs vs. 53,176 BTUs) but we consider it far too dangerous to use in anything but drag racers and, even there, only relatively small amounts are used.   

Here is a video
of what happens when nitro-methane goes up, and while it is certainly spectacular you wouldn’t want this happening to your engine. Here is another video of a cascading failure in a laptop battery, note the cells in this case don’t all go up at once, now think of the idea of making these explosions and the related heat 5x more powerful then picture this in your kids bedroom or on a plane. How about your phone battery in your shirt or pants pocket?  

Wrapping Up:  Losing Focus

Governments often lose focus on what the actual goal is and concentrate on the wrong thing. Like building more freeways to reduce traffic rather than forcing rules that would allow more people to work from home. Or, in this case, trying to solve the remote energy problem by focusing on energy storage rather than energy distribution.  The good news? When goals as ambitious as this project are set, the result is a money hole.   Strangely this might actually be a much safer outcome than if the group was successful.     

Your Government dollars at work.