"Advanced battery technologies are poised to dramatically change our lives, sooner than many market actors realize."
That's the opening sentence of Breakthrough Batteries: Powering the Era of Clean Electrification, a report published in late 2019 by the Rocky Mountain Institute, an independent nonprofit sustainability research institute.
Last week, Monash University in Melbourne, Australia, announced that it's moving to commercialize one of those technologies. A university news release said the Monash researchers' lithium-sulfur design could power a mobile phone for five days or an electric vehicle for 1,000 kilometers (621 miles)—without recharging.
The release said a German research partner had built prototypes and Chinese and European manufacturers had expressed interest. The researchers will continue testing this year.
Their technique "not only favors high performance metrics and long cycle life, but is also simple and extremely low cost to manufacture, using water-based processes, and can lead to significant reductions in environmentally hazardous waste," said Matthew Hill, a member of the battery development team. Hill is an associate professor of chemical engineering at Monash. He was quoted in the news release.
Compared to the ubiquitous lithium-ion (Li-ion for short) batteries that power everything from smartphones and cars to (for short periods) houses, lithium-sulfur batteries are lighter and much more energy-dense (i.e., powerful).
Their problem has been rapid degradation during charge-discharge cycles. In other words, they don't last long. The Monash researchers have found an "elegantly simple method" for addressing that issue, which they explain in an article published January 3 in the journal Science Advances.
The Breakthrough Batteries report likes the potential of lithium-sulfur.
"Lithium-sulfur batteries could enable heavier and weight-sensitive mobility applications," the report says. "Lithium-silver has high specific energy and low material costs from the use of sulfur as the cathode and will likely be cost-competitive with future high-performance Li-ion batteries."
The report sees lithium-sulfur batters first powering buses and trucks, then moving into military uses and even short-range aviation.
Batteries have revolutionized everyday life once before. In 1954, the Regency TR-1 portable radio made it possible to take your entertainment with you wherever you went. The TR-1 used a new device called a transistor that required much less electricity than the vacuum tube it replaced. The radio could run on a battery instead of being tethered to an AC power cord.
That made lifestyles much more mobile. Or rather, it made mobile lifestyles much more fun. You can draw a direct line from the TR-1 through the boombox and the Sony Walkman to the smartphone.
Where does the line of battery-powered innovation go from here? To fast-charging, long-range electric personal vehicles? Electric trucks and buses? Electric airplanes? The sky literally appears to be the limit.