Important advances on the battery front

The best batteries are lithium ion batteries. In these batteries, lithium ions are collected in one part of the battery, where they are held in place at the anode end by metal atoms, in the charged state. Pulling electricity out of the battery involves the lithium ions migrating away from the anode toward the cathode via a liquid medium.

The big problem with these batteries, in my view, is that the metal anode is made using a lot of cobalt, and to get cobalt, you have to, well, kill people.

A newer kind of battery uses sulfur to hold the ions at the anode. Sulfur is better in some ways because fewer atoms of sulfur can hold more ions. The sulfur is combined with a carbon (graphite usually, in current experimental designs that work best). The battery is lighter, hold more energy, and does not require maintaining a vast Central African Unending War, like Cobalt does.

But, the sulfur tends to combine with the carbon in the graphite, forming poly-sulfides, which migrate out into the matrix, and even to the cathode, and muck up the battery. For this reason, sulfur-based lithium ion batteries can only be charged and discharged a limited number of times.

There are uses for batteries that you only use a few times then toss. But, these sulfur batteries may eventually be made to work longer. There are tweaks to the anode (using different forms of carbon, or coating the carbon) and to the matrix (a version that allows highly efficient passage of lithium ions but that is repellent to poly-sulfides).

Battery experts are hopeful that there is a future in lithium-sulfer batteries.

See: Lithium-sulfur batteries poised for leap.

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12 thoughts on “Important advances on the battery front

  1. But sulphur is not gathered without human cost.

    Sulphur mining in an active volcano

    Although as mentioned in that article collection of sulphur by extracting from volcanic vents has all but finished now more commonly be extracted from underground deposits using the Frasch process

    Other sources of conflict in Africa, and elsewhere, come form the sourcing of the so called ‘rare earth’ elements, most of them, used in the production of such as smartphones along with many other extracted resources.

    1. Well, first, yes, there are other problems besides the specific one I mentioned, but that is another topic (of importance).

      Sulfur is a byproduct of petroleum production, and the various other forms it comes in suitable for commercial mining are not concentrated in one area of a poor continent, like Cobalt mostly is. It is currently produced at commercial levels in nearly 20 countries, with China, US, Russia and Canada producing the highest amounts, adding up to about a third or more of the total production.

      Of course, as petroleum is phases out, its availability as a byproduct will diminish!

      Sulfur is used in a lot of processes. I have no idea what the relative amount might be if used in batteries wholesale.

  2. Billions upon billions of batteries – whatever technology is used – are going to represent a very difficult sustainable manufacturing problem in their own right. But that is what we will get so long as the meme that renewables intermittency should be offset by batteries remains in play. But since batteries are good for hours, not days, the actual role they can play in dealing with renewable intermittency is quite limited. Until the seasonal solar issue is addressed (PHES, grid interconnections, wind overbuild, prayer) then prototype battery tech discussions are interesting, but not essentially much more encouraging than contemplating the shortcomings of LiION (recharge lifecycle factor in long-term cost).

    1. I notice you leave out the two Jacobson solution, 17x turbines at hydropower plants, and storage at CSP.

    2. Hours, not days, then put in twenty times as much batteries.

      Economically unfeasible. Please don’t just say stuff, it’s tedious.

  3. For this reason, sulfur-based lithium ion batteries can only be charged and discharged a limited number of times.

    Is the issue here unbeatable? The advancements in battery life for smart phones (I know, lithium ion, so I’m not conflating the two types here) and in Tesla’s has had as much to do with the improvements to smart charging methods (in Tesla’s case, AI applied to the data obtained during charging cycles of their batteries).

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