Mobile world: A global race is on to win at battery tech

Battery power is critical to a lot of new technology—and countries across the globe are trying to get ahead. How is the UK doing?

Arguably no one has ever been popular at parties for talking about batteries and yet so many people complain about them, especially with smartphones. Whether we like it or not, batteries are going to become even more important if we want to continue to enjoy wireless living, and increasingly, electric-powered driving.

Recent estimates suggest that by 2030, 50 percent of vehicle production will be electric or plug-in hybrid electric and smartphone ownership is growing again, with IDC claiming that smartphone shipments are forecast to reach 1.53 billion units in 2017 and grow to 1.77 billion in 2021. Notebook PCs too, continue to flourish, with 7.5 percent year-on-year growth, according to IDC. The demand for new and more powerful batteries will be unrelenting. Throw in the fact that in the UK at least, around 600 million batteries are thrown away each year and it also becomes an environmental problem.

Clearly, we cannot continue to rely on the current lithium-ion technology. Battery tech has to develop, to increase power at a reduced cost to both the environment and the pocket. To be fair, it’s not been for want of trying. There have been plenty of battery innovations over recent years but few have been from the UK.

In 2014 scientists at the University of Illinois and Tufts University in Massachusetts developed a biodegradable battery that will dissolve in water. In 2015 researchers in Sweden and the US announced they have developed a battery made of a squishy wood-based foam substance called aerogel, made primarily from wood pulp. Last year, researchers at the University of California announced that they had invented a nanowire material capable of over 200,000 charge cycles without any breakage of the nanowires, meaning the technology could lead to batteries that never need to be replaced. According to Ray Chohan, SVP of Corporate Strategy at PatSnap, most of the innovations like these are coming out of Korea, Japan and the US but other countries too are starting to get in the on the act.

Spanish firm Graphenano, for example is developing a graphene polymer battery called Grabat that it claims could boost electric vehicle range to around 800 kilometres, taking just a few minutes to charge. Graphenano, which is partnered with Chinese energy firm CHINT, also claims that the battery could discharge and charge 33 times faster than a standard lithium-ion battery. It is this sort of progress that is attracting considerable interest. Chinese firm Shanxi Leqi Graphene Technology also recently announced it is embarking on a graphene-based battery project, while last year Dongxu Optoelectronics developed a battery called the G-King that it claimed could recharge in just 15 minutes.

It’s food for thought given that UK business secretary Greg Clark announced a £246 million ($333 million) Faraday Challenge fund “to boost expertise in battery technology” in the summer. Chohan agrees that the UK is currently “a minor contributor in the development of battery technology” and has a lot of catching up to do. Nevertheless, the UK has its own players that will be welcoming Clark’s move.

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