Beauty and the Battery

Battery science explained for children

Beauty and the Battery

I’m going to just come out and say it… Batteries are Beautiful! Well at least battery science is. We all know the teeth gritting moment when your phone dies too soon and many of us (please say it isn’t just me) feel a little giddy at the sight of a Tesla. We are surrounded by exciting tech, much of which is so integral to our existence that we can barely remember life before it. Yet so much of it relies on battery technology, and that hasn’t really changed much in decades. Until now…

Before we look to the future, let’s understand where we are now. The best, widely available battery cell we have is the Lithium Ion Battery. Lithium is the lightest metal on the periodic table, it is also one of the best metals for generating energy. The down side of the Lithium Ion battery is that we have to rely on other metals such as Graphite and Nickel to harness the energy from Lithium. These are prone to wear and don’t take full advantage of the energy potential of the Lithium. With time this leads to a battery that increasingly looses charge the more you use it (think of how little your phone holds charge after 6 months compared to new!).

To address this problem scientists in Singapore have replaced the traditional graphite anode with a titanium dioxide gel that they have cleverly formed into nanotubes. These tubes are super-thin (about 1000 times thinner than a strand of human hair!) which makes them very efficient at making the most of the energy potential of Lithium, fast. And I mean FAST – the researchers suggest that their battery could go from flat to 70% charged in just two minutes! They are also thought to hold that charge ten times longer than current batteries. The research is in its infancy but a licence has been granted to begin large scale production so it shouldn’t be too long before we start seeing them in our electrical devices.

Lithium may not be the whole story of future batteries. One of the coolest sounding candidates are “Metal-Air Batteries”. These power-packed cells of energy react metals such as Zinc and Sodium with nothing more complicated than air! Lithium may still play a role – Scientists have suggested that a Lithium-Air battery could be used to power an electric car for around 1000 miles! The Lithium-Air batteries being tested are however a bit unpredictable so other metals that have lower energy potential but higher stability such as Zinc have been used. Zinc-Air batteries are already being used in hearing aids.

So the future of batteries all comes down to materials, from the coolest material of all Graphene to good old fashioned gold, materials scientists are going nano to increase efficiency and convenience. Oodles of bright sparks from Innovate UK and the Faraday Challenge are on the brink of a battery that can last longer, charge faster and be downright awesome. With a whole raft of new electrifying cars coming out in the next 12-24 months it wont be long until regular folks like you and I can have our own little parcel of battery bliss.

Check out the Future STEM Leader Avye here with her super simple battery experiment. It does require a but if unusual kit but it isn’t hard to get if you want to give it a go!

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