A Glass Battery That Keeps Getting Better?

A prototype solid-state battery based on lithium and glass faces criticism over claims that its capacity increases over time

Illustration of a battery
Illustration: iStockphoto
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Is there such a thing as a battery whose capacity to store energy increases with age? One respected team of researchers say they have developed just such a technology. Controversy surrounds their claims, however, in part because thermodynamics might seem to demand that a battery only deteriorates over many charge-discharge cycles.

The researchers have a response for that critique and continue to publish peer-reviewed papers about this work. If such claims came from almost any other lab, they might be ignored and shunned by the broader community of battery researchers, the same way physicists turn their noses up at anything that smacks of a perpetual motion machine.

But this lab belongs to one of the most celebrated battery pioneers today—and one of the inventors of the lithium-ion battery itself. John Goodenough, who at 96 continues to research and publish like scientists one-third his age, last year joined with three co-authors in publishing a paper that grabbed headlines. (Spectrum had profiled him and his battery technology the year before, following an initial announcement about his group’s new glass battery.)

Goodenough and collaborators claimed they’d developed a non-flammable lithium battery (whose electrolyte was based on a glass powder) that had twice the energy density of traditional lithium-ion batteries. They also published a graph that showed an increase in capacity over more than 300 charge-discharge cycles. (This increase, however, pales in comparison to the cell’s at least 23,000-cycle lifespan.)

Maria Helena Braga, associate professor and head of the engineering physics department at the University of Porto in Portugal, has been one of Goodenough’s chief collaborators in the spate of recent papers around the glass battery.

“We are complex beings that happen between an entropy increase,” she says about the increased capacity claims—and any alleged violation of thermodynamics. “I don’t know why people make a big thing about this.”

This prototype of a non-flammable lithium-ion battery has an electrolyte based on a glass powder.
Photo: Maria Helena Braga
This prototype of a non-flammable lithium-ion battery has an electrolyte based on a glass powder.

She says their glass electrolyte is a ferroelectric material—a material whose polarization switches back and forth in the presence of an outside field. So charge-discharge cycles are effectively jiggling the electrolyte back and forth and perhaps, over time, finding the ideal configuration of each electromagnetic dipole.

“This is what happens as you are charging and discharging,” Braga says. “You are aligning the ferroelectric dipoles.”

She and collaborators published part of their argument in the journal Materials Theory earlier this year. Another part, she says, is under peer review.

Braga says their group has been working with companies looking to license the battery technology. Because no official announcements have been made, she said she could not reveal who the licensors are or what technology they might be developing with this battery.

She did say that large battery banks that might be spun off from this research stand to not only have higher capacity, but also be substantially lighter than lithium ions. Although, she adds, perhaps the greatest weight savings will come not from comparing one battery cell’s mass with another. “The biggest difference would be that you don’t have to have the same stainless steel bunkers in each of the cells,” she says. 

Sealing off each battery cell from each other—to reduce the risk of runaway fire—would not be necessary with a non-flammable battery. As would any extensive battery management system (BMS) that carefully monitors battery performance in EVs and other technologies that use large banks of batteries.

“The BMS is to control temperatures,” she says. “In our case, we don’t have to have that.” In fact, she adds, up to a point, rising temperatures only increase the electrolyte’s performance.

As for the future of the Goodenough/Braga battery, she projects it will first be used in a commercial product in three years. So circa 2022, if her forecasts are right, you might see an EV-maker or grid battery storage company, or a consumer-electronics manufacturer boast about a new, high-capacity (and non-flammable!) battery.

And if they claim the battery initially even increases its capacity as you charge and discharge it, then you’ll know whether Braga and her collaborators’ argument ultimately won out.

This post was updated on 3 June 2019. 

3D-Printed Semiconductor Cube Could Convert Waste Heat to Electricity

Here’s how these cubeoids could harness waste heat from steel plants

Image of new 3D technique
Photo: SPECIFIC team – Swansea University
New 3D printed technique for thermoelectrics developed by the SPECIFIC research team.

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From his office at Swansea University in the United Kingdom, associate professor Matthew Carnie has a good view of Tata Steel’s furnace stacks. To some, those chimneys rising over Port Talbot are unsightly. To Carnie, they’re an opportunity. They emit a good portion of the plant’s waste heat, which overall has the same power output as some nuclear plants, says Carnie—around 1,300 megawatts, according to his calculations.

 

With that much potential power waiting to be captured, Carnie and his research team have developed a hybrid, 3D-printed semiconductor material that converts waste heat into electricity. It’s 50 percent more efficient than another inexpensive semiconductor material, lead telluride, that’s screen-printed, and the new material could be assembled cheaply into a device that converts up to 10 percent of heat wherever it’s applied.

 

“Ideally, they could be deployed in areas where there is high-grade waste heat and be used to generate power to help with energy efficiency,” says Carnie. With one-sixth of all energy used by industry in the United Kingdom pouring into the atmosphere as waste heat, the possibilities are big, he says.

 

Carnie, who has expertise in printed photovoltaics, lately has been exploring the field of thermoelectrics. Here, materials like semiconductors and electrical conductors produce a voltage when hot electrons flow from one kind of heated material to another, relatively cooler kind. To date, the most efficient semiconductor material available is tin selenide, made from tin and selenium. Although it holds the record for efficiency of waste-heat conversion, it hasn’t been made into a commercial device.

 

To work with it, Carnie would need the appropriate rigs—ones that could sinter materials with plasma or press them at high pressures and temperatures in excess of several hundred degrees Celsius. Those machines were not in his department’s budget.

 

Carnie wondered if he could transfer some of what he knew from printing photovoltaic materials to thermoelectrics. He asked team member and postdoctoral researcher, Matthew Burton, if they could turn tin selenide into an ink. No one had done that before, and Burton was skeptical. But he made it happen by mixing tin and selenium powder with organic binders and water.

 

Burton then poured the ink into tiny cube-shaped molds about 10 millimeters on each side and dried them in an oven at 120 degrees Celsius. Lastly, he baked the cubeoids at more than 800 degrees K to burn off the organic binders.  

 

Efficiency measurements from the first results were promising, says Carnie. In the field of thermoelectric devices, efficiency is measured by a “figure of merit” number, known as ZT. Anything above 1 ZT is considered very promising. Burton’s first cubes tested at around .5 ZT. After tweaking the amount of binder and the ratios of tin to selenium, Burton was able to achieve 1.7 ZT.

 

“That is a record for thermoelectric material made in this fashion,” says Carnie.

 

Far more research is needed, says Carnie. For starters, they’ve made just one of the two different semiconductor materials needed—the type that holds the hot electrons. They still need to make the “cooler” side, where the electrons flow to. But this fall, Tata Steel is sponsoring a PhD student to help develop the second part, and eventually both materials will be sandwiched between slices of ceramic to make a thermoelectric device.

 

Whether the steel plant eventually adopts such a system will depend on cost, says Carnie. But he’s hopeful. Room-temperature ink is cheap to mix up and if they can move the ink to a nozzle-based system and print it with continuous manufacturing methods, it would be a dramatic improvement, he says.

 

The research was published in Advanced Energy Materials.

Updated 20 June 2018

New Porous Silicon Battery to be Available Commercially Soon

Startup Aims to Tackle Grid Storage Problem With New Porous Silicon Battery

A Canadian company emerges from stealth mode to provide grid-scale energy storage with its high-density battery tech

Image of Christine Hallquist
Photo: Denial Documentary
Christine Hallquist of Cross Border Power plans to commercialize a porous silicon battery design developed by Washington-based company XNRGI.
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A new Canadian company with roots in Vermont has emerged from stealth mode and has ambitious plans to roll out a new grid-scale battery in the year ahead. The longshot storage technology, targeted at utilities, offers four times the energy density and four times the lifetime of lithium-ion batteries, the company says, and will be available for half the price.

 

The new company’s CEO, a former Democratic nominee for governor of Vermont, founded Cross Border Power in the wake of her electoral loss last November. Within days after the election, she was at her computer and writing a thesis (since posted on her campaign website) that she boldly calls “[The] North American Solution to Climate Change.”

 

One of Christine Hallquist’s planks as gubernatorial candidate was to set the Green Mountain state on a path to obtaining 90 percent of its energy from renewable sources by 2050. In the final weeks of the election, the Republican Governors Association attacked Hallquist’s campaign by claiming her vision would raise taxes on Vermonters and hike gasoline prices at the pump.

 

Today, she might agree that economics may indeed shape the future of renewable energy—but through low prices, not high ones. “I think we’re at the point, especially with our batteries, that renewables are going to be cheaper than any of the fossil fuels,” she says.

 

Before she ran for governor, Hallquist was CEO of the Vermont Electric Cooperative where she experienced firsthand the difficulties of transitioning to renewable energy without viable grid-scale storage.

 

Through her new venture, she’s now trying to provide a solution to wind and solar energy’s intermittency. That opportunity emerged after she published her “Solution” paper online, in which she wrote: “Battery storage is the holy grail for extensive deployment of renewables.”

 

A group of Canadian investors and venture capitalists, having followed Hallquist’s gubernatorial run and read her climate change “Solution” position paper, contacted her about a battery technology that was still in stealth mode. The investors, who Hallquist says are themselves still keeping out of the public spotlight, began as a Canadian assortment of venture capitalists and have since expanded to include a number of American financiers as well.

 

The battery they’re touting is made by the Bothell, Wash.-based company XNRGI. According to its website, an XNRGI cell uses existing silicon semiconductor manufacturing technology to engineer a “porous” silicon battery. “Think of a traditional silicon wafer that we use for all of our electronics today,” Hallquist says. “They etch a 20 x 20 micron honeycomb into that silicon to make a porous silicon. They use the same wafer for the anode and the cathode.”

 

The idea behind the XNRGI battery is an unconventional one, depicted in a two-minute explainer video and five-page white paper [PDF] from the company. The etched silicon wafers, which are later coated with lithium and other metals to form anodes and cathodes, contain forests of micro-sized batteries on each silicon wafer. Think of each “micro-battery” as an elongated hollow box with a 20 x 20 micron footprint. The cathode and anode are the top and bottom half of that hollow box, separated by some distance from each other. No individual micro-battery, Hallquist says, contains enough charge current to form substantial dendrites or other structures that could arc the positive and negative ends of the battery.

 

And each 12-inch silicon wafer consists of some 36 million of these vertical “micro-batteries” machined into the wafer’s surface. Which, as the explainer video argues, decreases the charge time of the macro-battery (made up of many micro-batteries) as well as the manufacturing cost of the technology, as it’s based on already scaled-up silicon fabrication processes used in computer chip manufacturing today.

 

Hallquist says the company’s technology is covered by 15 patents (and 12 pending patents) and supported with more than US $80 million investment from private and public sources.

 

According to the company’s white paper, XNRGI has “has already built more than 600 working samples (8 billion micro-batteries) for a wide range of clients.”

 

It was the group’s work at the individual battery cell level, Hallquist says, that convinced her that XNRGI’s battery was “ready for commercialization.” So Hallquist secured exclusive rights to sell and distribute the XNRGI battery technology to the North American power market. (These are rights that her company, Cross Border Power, which is based in Quebec, only finalized last week.)

 

 

Hallquist says the battery banks that Cross Border Power plans to sell to utility companies as soon as next year will be installed in standard computer server racks. One shipping container worth of those racks (totaling 40 racks in all) will offer 4 megawatt-hours of battery storage capacity, she says. Contrast this, she adds, to a comparable set of rack-storage lithium ion batteries which would typically only yield 1 megawatt-hour of storage in a shipping container.

 

Hallquist adds, however, that packing traditional lithium ion cells into a metal shipping container that’s exposed to summer heat can be dangerous, given the problem of thermal runaway. The XNRGI battery, Hallquist says, will not have that problem. “When you use porous silicon, you get about 70 times the surface area compared to a traditional lithium battery… [and] there’s millions of cells in a wafer. It completely eliminates the problem of dendrite formation.” And with no dendrites, the risk of thermal runaway disappears.

 

The last benefit, she says, is the XNRGI cells’ recyclability. “At the end of the life of this product, you bring the wafers back in, you clean the wafer off, you reclaim the lithium and other materials. And it’s essentially brand new. So we’re 100 percent recyclable.”

 

Yet, Hallquist says providing battery storage at utility scale is still not a simple problem. One 4-megawatt shipping container pales in comparison to the 222 gigawatt (GW) capacity that renewables represented in the United States in 2018. And, of course, the amount of renewable energy in the electrical grid is only going up.

 

“It’s a tremendous engineering challenge,” Hallquist says of the battery storage problem. “But I would posit that, of course, we can do it.”

This post was updated on 19 July. 

How Israel and its partisans work to censor the Internet

How Israel and its partisans work to censor the Internet

How Israel and its partisans work to censor the Internet

 

 

YouTube’s email claimed we had somehow violated their long list of guidelines but did not tell us which one, or how. It simply stated:

“Your video ‘Ahmad Nasser Jarrar’ was flagged for review. Upon review, we’ve determined that it violates our guidelines. We’ve removed it from YouTube and assigned a Community Guidelines strike, or temporary penalty, to your account.”

Such a penalty is not public and does not terminate the channel.

Three days later, before we’d even had a chance to appeal this strike, YouTube suddenly took down our entire channel. This was done with no additional warnings or explanation.

This violated YouTube’s published policies.

YouTube policies say there is a “three-strike” system by which it warns people of alleged violations three times before terminating a channel. If a channel is eventually terminated, the policies state that YouTube will send an email “detailing the reason for the suspension.”

None of this happened in our case.

We submitted appeals on YouTube’s online form, but received no response. Attempts to find a phone number for YouTube and/or email addresses by which we could communicate with a human being were futile.

YouTube’s power to shut down content without explanation whenever it chooses was acutely apparent. While there are other excellent video hosting sites, YouTube is the largest one, with nearly ten times more views than its closest competitors. It is therefore enormously powerful in shaping which information is available to the public–and which is not.

We spent days working to upload our videos elsewhere, update links to the videos, etc. Finally, having received no response or even acknowledgment of our appeal from YouTube, we decided to write an article about the situation. We emailed YouTube’s press department a list of questions about its process. We have yet to receive any answers.

Finally that evening we received an email with good news:

“After a review of your account, we have confirmed that your YouTube account is not in violation of our Terms of Service. As such, we have unsuspended your account. This means your account is once again active and operational.”

Our channel was visible once more. And YouTube had now officially confirmed that our content doesn’t violate its guidelines.

Ultimately, the YouTube system seems to have worked, in our case. Inappropriate censorship was overruled, perhaps by saner or less biased heads. In fact, we felt that there might at least be one positive result of the situation—additional YouTube employees had viewed our videos and perhaps learned much about Israel-Palestine they had not previously known.

But the whole experience was a wakeup call that YouTube can censor information critical of powerful parties at any time, with no explanation or accountability.

Israeli soldiers paid to “Tweet, Share, Like and more”

 

 

Israel and partisans of Israel have long had a significant presence on the Internet, working to promote the Israel narrative and block facts about Palestine, the Israel lobby, and other subject matter they wish covered up.

Opinionated proponents of Israel post comments, flag content, accuse critics of “antisemitism,” and disseminate misinformation about Palestine and Palestine solidarity activists. Many of these actions are by individuals acting alone who work independently, voluntarily, and relentlessly.

In addition to these, however, a number of orchestrated, often well-funded projects sponsored by the Israeli government and others have come to light. These projects work to place pro-Israel content throughout the Internet, and to remove information Israel doesn’t wish people to know.

One such Israeli project targeting the Internet came to light when it was lauded in an article by Arutz Sheva, an Israeli news organization headquartered in an Israeli settlement in the West Bank.

The report described a new project by Israel’s “New Media desk” that focused on YouTube and other social media sites. The article reported that Israeli soldiers were being employed to “Tweet, Share, Like and more.”

The article noted, “It is well known nowadays that what happens on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube has great influence on events as they occur on the ground. The Internet, too, is a battleground.” It was “comforting,” the article stated, to learn that the IDF was employing soldiers whose job was specifically to do battle on it.

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