Battery Researchers Mystified by New Goodenough Paper on Solid State Battery (“It’s Kind of Like Cold Fusion”)

Thanks to readers who brought my attention to an interesting development in the world of battery research and development.

On February 28th, 2017, the University of Texas at Austin published a press release announcing that a team led by John Goodenough, professor in the Cockrell School of Engineering had made a breakthrough by developing “first all-solid-state battery cells that could lead to safer, faster-charging, longer-lasting rechargeable batteries for handheld mobile devices, electric cars and stationary energy storage.”

John Goodenough is a 94 year-old solid state physicist who is considered to be the one of the key researchers behind the development of the lithium-ion battery.

More from the press release:

“Today’s lithium-ion batteries use liquid electrolytes to transport the lithium ions between the anode (the negative side of the battery) and the cathode (the positive side of the battery). If a battery cell is charged too quickly, it can cause dendrites or “metal whiskers” to form and cross through the liquid electrolytes, causing a short circuit that can lead to explosions and fires. Instead of liquid electrolytes, the researchers rely on glass electrolytes that enable the use of an alkali-metal anode without the formation of dendrites.

“The use of an alkali-metal anode (lithium, sodium or potassium) — which isn’t possible with conventional batteries — increases the energy density of a cathode and delivers a long cycle life. In experiments, the researchers’ cells have demonstrated more than 1,200 cycles with low cell resistance.

“Additionally, because the solid-glass electrolytes can operate, or have high conductivity, at -20 degrees Celsius, this type of battery in a car could perform well in subzero degree weather. This is the first all-solid-state battery cell that can operate under 60 degree Celsius.”

The team published a paper, (lead author Maria Helena Braga) titled “Alternative strategy for a safe rechargeable battery” can be read in the journal Engineering and Environmental Science here.

There has been an interesting response among battery researcher to the published research. An article published on the Quarz website reports how some researchers are somewhat incredulous about what Goodenough’s paper reports. Here are some excerpts and comments:

“It’s what is not stated in the paper that has some of the battery community stumped. How is Goodenough’s new invention storing any energy at all? The known rules of physics state that, to derive energy, differing material must produce differing eletro-chemical reactions in the two opposing electrodes. That difference produces voltage, allowing energy to be stored. But Goodenough’s battery has pure metallic lithium or sodium on both sides. Therefore, the voltage should be zero, with no energy produced, battery researchers told Quartz . . .

“‘If anyone but Goodenough published this, I would be, well, it’s hard to find a polite word,’ Daniel Steingart, a professor at Princeton, told Quartz . . .

“He’s technically made a perpetual motion machine,” said Venkat Viswanathan, a professor at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania . . .

“’It’s kind of like cold fusion. Here is an experiment that is unbelievable,’said Dalhousie University’s Jeff Dahn, a leading researcher whose Canadian laboratory is on a contract with Tesla. ‘There could be a small possibility that it is right.'”

Daniel Steingart has written an essay in which he speculates that air might have somehow leaked into the battery, making this a lithium air battery, but this idea has been rejected by Braga, who has been responding to questions via email.

So it’s an interesting development. Battery technology had been notoriously hard to improve significantly, which has proven to be something of a holdup for more speedy deployment of electric vehicles and other applications where improved energy storage and energy density is needed. If this really is the major breakthrough the researchers claim, it could turn out to be very important.