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Wednesday, 16 January 2008 15:17

Revolutionary nanowire battery delivers 10x the charge of lithium-ion

An amazing new nanowire battery has finally been developed that delivers the revolutionary leap in battery technology we’ve all been waiting for, giving our gadgets and notebooks up to 10x the battery life, while reliably powering the electric cars of tomorrow. At last!

Although Moore’s Law sees computing technology double in power every 18 months, battery technology is said to double in capacities every 18 years by comparison, explaining why processors and hard drives have advanced so rapidly while batteries have improved at a much slower pace.

So it’s exciting to hear that Stanford researchers have discovered a new type of battery using silicon nanowires which they say has 10x the life of today’s lithium-ion batteries.

Given that research on using silicon in batteries started 30 years ago, that 18 year timeframe for battery improvements looks like it held up.

An easy example of what nanowire batteries means can easily be been with today’s notebook computer. If its battery lasts for 4 or 5 hours, a nanowire battery should provide 40 to 50 hours of life, giving you a computer that you could use on and off for 5 hours a day – and not need to recharge for well over a week!

There’s also all the gadgets we use today, most of which only offer a few hours of real battery life, such as mobile phones which might offer days of ‘standby time’ but only 3 or 4 hours of actual talk time, which is rendered shorter still if advanced features are used such as browsing, streaming media, listening to music, playing games, etc.

All those iPods and other mp3 players, digital cameras, mobile phones, handheld games consoles and anything else that uses batteries will also now enjoy dramatically longer battery life once nanowire batteries are sold in the technology we buy.

The technology was developed through research led by Yi Cui, assistant professor of materials science and engineering, who worked with his graduate chemistry student Candace Chan and five others to create the new battery thanks to the wonders of nanotechnology, said that: "It's not a small improvement. It's a revolutionary development”.

So, will Cui take the battery technology public so we, the public, can use it and enjoy tremedously long battery life? And what about using nanowire batteries in electric cars - or to store power in green power generation? Please read onto page 2 to continue...

On the issue of commercialising nanowire technology, Stanford researcher Yi Cui said that "Given the mature infrastructure behind silicon, this new technology can be pushed to real life quickly", something he is considering through the formation of a company or by working with an existing battery manufacturer to quickly put nanowire batteries into production.

Cui said that manufacturing the nanowire batteries would require "one or two different steps, but the process can certainly be scaled up”, adding that, “it's a well understood process.”

There’s also the ability to give electric cars long life nanowire batteries that can be plugged into a regular power socket for recharging. This helps eliminate the need for primarily petrol engine based electric hybrids such as the Toyota Prius, Honda Civic Hybrid and most of the others.

Tomorrow’s hybrids are either completely electric cars, or those which use GM’s idea in the concept Volt hybrid (due in 2010) to provide a primary electric engine to drive the car, supplemented by a very versatile and small generator, running on petrol, ethanol, hydrogen and other biofuels to simply act as an electric generator to recharge the batteries.

The nanowire batteries could well be so good that such an additional generator is rendered unnecessary, but in the short term, despite ever higher petrol prices, the widespread availability of petrol in most of the western world is unlikely to disappear anytime soon, making the backup generator a great backup - at least for now.

Stanford researcher Yi Cui suggested that nanowire batteries “could also be used in homes or offices to store electricity generated by rooftop solar panels” – but why stop there?

Anywhere electricity can be generated, it can be stored in these new batteries which use nanotechnology to safely store the energy without fracturing the battery as happened before nanotechnology was employed.

So, just how did Yi Cui and his colleagues figure out how to use ultra modern nanotechnology to make a breakthough that has been 30 years in the making? Please read onto page 3 for the conclusion!

The original Stanford article on the nanowire discovery has the details of how the lithium silicon nanowires came to be used in batteries and how they succeeded where years of previous research yielded batteries with too little power output and too few recharge cycles.

But to summarise, when silicon is traditionally used in a battery, in place of the normally used carbon, battery life can be greatly extended, but with one big problem: silicon swelling during charging, and shrinking during use.

This constant ‘expand/shrink’ cycle pulverises the silicon inside the battery and helps it to destroy itself.

According to the Stanford article, the nanowire battery uses lithium “stored in a forest of tiny silicon nanowires, each with a diameter one-thousandth the thickness of a sheet of paper. The nanowires inflate four times their normal size as they soak up lithium. But, unlike other silicon shapes, they do not fracture” – and thus work to reliably much more energy than ever before.

Without nanotechnology, this battery breakthrough would not have been possible, and while there are undoubtedly even better battery technologies yet to be invented that can store and deliver even more power, nanowire batteries look set to deliver the revolutionary leap in battery life the digital age has been so impatiently waiting for.

Let’s hope one or more of the major battery companies jump on this development and fast tracks the first true breakthrough in ultra long battery life in the small battery sizes we’re used to, forever changing and improving the way we store and use our portable power – please don’t let this technology end up somewhere on a shelf!

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Alex Zaharov-Reutt

One of Australia’s best-known technology journalists and consumer tech experts, Alex has appeared in his capacity as technology expert on all of Australia’s free-to-air and pay TV networks on all the major news and current affairs programs, on commercial and public radio, and technology, lifestyle and reality TV shows. Visit Alex at Twitter here.

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