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next generation batteries New battery chemistry 'free from heavy metals' enables faster charging

Author / Editor: Luke James / Johanna Erbacher

Not only could IBM's relatively new battery technology enable faster recharging, but it could also alleviate environmental concerns by avoiding the use of heavy metals in battery manufacturing.

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IBM is working with Mercedes-Benz to create a new ecosystem for the development of next generation batteries.
IBM is working with Mercedes-Benz to create a new ecosystem for the development of next generation batteries.
(Source: gemeinfrei / Unsplash)

Today, it seems that there is a battery-powered alternative for everything. From electric vehicles to power grids, few stones have been left unturned. Although this is fantastic news for us consumers, there are significant concerns surrounding the sustainability of the battery technologies being used.

At the end of last year, IBM unveiled a new battery discovery with research that could help eliminate the need for heavy metals in battery production. If the IBM team’s research comes to fruition and bears a commercialised process, it may transform the long-term sustainability of many elements of our energy infrastructure.

Environmental risks

Many of the materials used in batteries, including heavy metals such as nickel and cobalt, pose a significant risk for the environment. The latter metal in particular, cobalt, has come under heavy scrutiny for the careless and exploitative extraction practices that have been exposed in central Africa where it is sourced. So being able to develop a battery free from heavy metals such as cobalt will represent a humanitarian victory as well as an environmental one.

This is exactly what researchers from IBM have been working on for years and right at the end of 2019, an IBM team reported the discovery of a chemistry for a new battery which does not use heavy metals or other materials with sourcing concerns. The new battery chemistry relies on combining three new and different proprietary materials which are extracted from seawater.

Outperforming lithium-ion

The IBM team’s design uses a cobalt and nickel-free cathode material alongside a safe liquid electrolyte with a high flash point, reducing the risk of combustion through the suppression of lithium metal dendrites—tiny, rigid tree-like structures that can grow inside a lithium battery and pierce its separator, much like a weed penetrates concrete, making it unstable and susceptible to combustion.

From initial tests, the IBM team was able to demonstrate that their new battery technology surpasses the capabilities of lithium-ion lithium-ion across a number of categories including lower costs, faster charging time, higher power and energy density, lower flammability, and strong energy efficiency. Current tests by the IBM team show that the battery can be charged to 80% capacity in less than five minutes. In addition, when optimised correctly, the new battery design exceeds more than 10,000 W/L, outperforming some of the most powerful lithium-ion batteries currently available on the market.

These capabilities demonstrate significant potential for applications like electric vehicle batteries where concerns such as cost, charging time, and flammability have been heralded as constraints to the widespread commercialisation and consumer adoption of electric vehicles.

Going forward, the team hopes to bring their batteries into reality by planning for the larger development of the underlying technology. This is still in the exploratory phase and IBM is currently working with Mercedes-Benz to create a new next-generation battery development ecosystem.