How often do you say or hear: “Can I borrow your charger please? I’m down to 20%.”

Batteries are the crucial force that keeps all our mobile tech working. Innovations in battery life extension are often crucial to the development of other aspects of technological progress.

Are mobiles the most important market in terms of battery innovation?

Surprisingly, it is not hand held devices that are the biggest market for battery developers. According to Wood Mackenzie’s analyst, Rory McCarthy, innovation in the world of batteries “pretty much driven by whatever’s happening in the electric vehicle market”. The International Energy Agency predicts that by 2030 there will be 125 million electric vehicles around the globe. With a figure like that, you can see why it’s the market place to focus on.

Different types of batteries

There are a couple of different types of batteries in development that will make an impact on other technological R&D projects.

Lithium-ion Batteries

Professor Akira Yoshino won the 2019 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his work producing the lithium-ion battery, which he started in the 1980s. He said: “At the time, we thought it mainly would be used in 8mm video cameras.” But now you’re never more than about half a metre from a mobile device being powered by a lithium-ion battery.

There are still plenty of issues to conquer with just this type of battery. At the moment they can still only store a small percentage of the energy in equivalent weight of jet fuel or petrol. This foils the development of lighter and smaller devices, as the batteries cannot be shrunk to fit. There is also some instability with the electrolyte gel, which can become combustible. You may remember Samsung’s recall of their Galaxy Note 7 handsets, after several fires caused by the batteries.

R&D in lithium-ion batteries

Professor Yoshino said: “We’re learning some new principles we haven’t thought of before.” How the lithium-ion moves inside the batteries is being re-investigated because it’s “not what we expected. Yes, it goes on and on it never ends”

Another battery innovator, Gene Berdichevsky, said: “We need continued investment and innovation in lithium-ion batteries.” At his company Sila Nanotechnologies, they are working on lithium-ion batteries with 40% more energy storage capacity. Their particular focus is on where the current flows into the batteries. Currently these anodes are made from silicone and they are seeing success by using silicon instead. Mr Berdichevsky sees lithium-ion batteries as the only “meaningful” answer to the future demands of electric cars.

Solid State Batteries

Solid state batteries are an exciting development which hold 50% more energy than lithium-ion batteries. They are being developed by a company called Solid Power. Their chief executive, Douglas Campbell, also said that solid state batteries are much more robust than lithium-ion because they are using ceramics or solid polymers instead of the more unstable, flammable gel.

R&D in solid state battery production

According to Professor Yoshino, scientists have “had the breakthrough in basic research, and research and development for mass production techniques is progressing.” Part of the problem is that solid state batteries still require lithium and it’s a difficult metal to manipulate. It’s also hard to make the industrial quantities necessary.

Another major issue is price comparison. Quite simply, lithium-ion sell more, so they can cost less. Solid state batteries are produced in fewer quantities, they aren’t known to customers and therefore have to be more expensive – for now.

Battery power as part of the global climate change emergency solution?

Batteries are cleaner than jet fuel, diesel and petrol. They just need to store enough power to keep lorries, planes and cars working to their current efficiency.

We’re already seeing the electric car market expand. Israeli company Eviation showed their all-electric commercial plane at the Paris air show. And they got a substantial order form Cape Air, a domestic American airline.

Considering that 500 million tonnes of CO2 is generated annually by our current usage of air travel, this can only be a good thing for us all.

If your company is involved in improving existing types of battery, or creating something new, make sure you are claiming your R&D tax relief. Whether you’re an SME or large company, there’s a great scheme for your business. Who doesn’t need £49k to invest in their next project? (That’s the average R&D Tax Credit claim we secure for our clients. And yes, that is thousands of pounds, not hundreds.)

Jamie Smith