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Soon, aluminium could power batteries

According to reports, there are a lot of companies which are investing heavily into battery technology to make them last longer. Donald R Sadoway is the current John F Elliott Professor of Materials Chemistry at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and is one of the leading scientists in material science and engineering.

His work these days is helping take battery technology into a new age. Professor Sadoway was speaking at EmTech India, a conference organized by MIT’s technology Review. It focuses on emerging technologies and their impact.

Professor Sadoway spoke to TOI on some pros and cons of existing battery technologies and their applications . Excerpts from the interview:

On his current research
I am working in the area of electricity storage at the grid level. It’s important for making today’s electricity grid more robust which helps in reducing cost variation. It’s also important for tomorrow’s grid which will run on sources like solar energy. So with proper electricity storage we could make it possible for people to draw electricity even when the sun doesn’t shine. And the big problem now is existing battery technology is too expensive and it doesn’t last. You want batteries that can last about 10 years or 15 years.

On limitations of lithium ion batteries
Lithium ion technology is now about 20 years old, and it’s a terrific technology which has given us many wireless devices. But when you start thinking about airplanes and cars we have to go to large format batteries, and with these you can’t dissipate the heat from the centre of the battery passively. You’ve got to get active coolants. That’s where lithium batteries are having trouble.

When you make large Li-Ion batteries it’s not just the cost of one cell multiplied by 1000 . It’s much more. The unit cost goes up because now you’ve got to put in a cooling system, and temperature sensors and all sorts of safety equipment.

So I’m saying that we need to move on to some other technology that is intrinsically cheaper so when you put on these safety features you’ll still be able to reach a price point. Otherwise electric vehicles will remain something for the super rich.

I like aluminium. Because of two reasons. It’s more abundant. Aluminium is the third most abundant metal in the earth’s crust. The second thing is that aluminium has the valency of +3 and lithium a valency of +1. So every time an aluminium ion takes three electrons. It has comparable performance to lithium but at much lower costs. You just need to find the right electrolyte for it. 

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