As more systems look toward better electricity storage, a harmless, durable, and non-flammable battery could be the way forward, Stuart Nathan reports.
We are living in an electric age. Our energy carrier of choice is the zipping electron in a conductor. And this trend is increasing. As we develop more and more systems which rely on both electricity and mobility – electric cars, electrically powered shipping and, in the coming decades, electric aircraft, we are faced with two pressing problems. The first is how to generate the electricity we need to power our devices without adversely affecting the environment, and the second is how to store it in such a way that it can be delivered in the amounts and for the duration necessary. Both problems are difficult and pressing, but a breakthrough in the second – battery systems – may be on its way.
For decades, the battery technology of choice for storing and delivering relatively large amounts of electricity over a long period has been the lithium ion battery. But these have well-known drawbacks. One is that their energy density is simply not as big as that of the liquid hydrocarbon fuels they typically replace in vehicles, meaning that it is difficult to pack enough batteries into a car to power it over the distances that drivers are typically used to from a tank of petrol. It also limits the usefulness in aircraft because the power-to-weight ratio for a long flight is not favorable.
The other problem is safety – lithium ion batteries have an unfortunate tendency to catch fire and explode, which is obviously not favorable if they are in a car or an aircraft.
Swiss start-up Innolith is claiming to have made major advances toward solving both problems with a world-first battery with energy density of 1kWh per kilogram. Rather than the organic electrolyte that most lithium ion batteries contain, which is flammable, these batteries have an entirely inorganic, non-flammable electrolyte system, and they do not contain toxic materials, rare-earth metals or minerals from conflict zones. The company claims these batteries are stable over many thousands of charge-discharge cycles and cannot fail in a harmful or dangerous way.
Innolith’s underlying technology has been covered in The Engineer before. In 2015, a Norwegian-based company called Alevo attempted to start up as the world’s first industrial-scale producer of grid-connected batteries in a former William Morris cigarette factory in Concord, North Carolina.
However, this was an expansion too far, too soon. The challenge of building modern manufacturing technology into an enormous 1950s building proved too much, and the company went bankrupt in 2017.
Former chief technology officer Alan Greenshields and chief operating officer Sergey Buchin bought the company’s intellectual property and its R&D facility in Bruchsal, Germany in 2018 to launch Innolith, focusing on R&D rather than manufacturing. The Engineer visited the Bruchsal laboratories in March to see how their work was coming along and spoke to several of the management team.
The battery is based on lithium chemistry but is not a lithium ion battery. According to chief engineer Markus Borck, co-inventor of many of the technological details of the battery with Laurent Zinck, who has the role of chief scientist for the company, lithium itself may be replaceable with a similar but more abundant metal (he did not specifically say which metal this might be, but sodium would be an obvious candidate).
Innolith Science and Technology GmbH