How better batteries can save our planet

Gaston Planté had invented the lead-acid battery. It was an amazing achievement. He had created the first viable means for storing electricity aboard a vehicle. But there was just one problem.

It was 1859 and there wasn’t an automobile in sight, let alone an electric vehicle.

However, things change in the 1890s when the wealthy elite started taking an interest in horseless carriages. And, believe it or not, for a while, electric cars were the vehicle of choice for the upper classes: they vibrated less, smelt nicer and were quieter than gasoline cars.

Then road infrastructure began to improve. By the 1920s, highways were being constructed, linking up major cities. Meanwhile, discoveries of huge petroleum reserves were being made worldwide, which made combustion engine cars much cheaper and appealing: they offered a greater range, were faster and were cheaper to build than electrics cars.

Now, almost a century later, things have changed. We’re entering a new golden age for electric vehicles. I should know. I drive one of these.

What sparked this was the invention of the lithium-ion battery in the early 1990s and the realisation that global warming is real and happening.

Humanity is just getting started. Rapid technological progress continues to be made. Lithium-ion batteries are being created wider and longer to allow more materials to be packed in. New cooling technologies are being developed to pack these cells into battery packs at even greater densities. There have also been significant improvements in cathode designs, where the relative quantities of cobalt, aluminium, manganese and nickel have been perfected to create the optimal crystalline structures for the lithium-ion battery.

Another exciting development is the use of graphite anodes. They’re being used to increase energy capacity, decrease charge times and increase the number of charging cycles. Here, a further enhancement is now being introduced with silicon nanowires being inserted into these graphite anodes to further enhance performance. Tesla has started to experiment already with this technology.

However, all of this is unfortunately not enough. Battery tech has to improve much more.

I believe we will need a radically different technology to succeed.

I believe the future is solid-state. That is, solid-state batteries.

Most people wouldn’t have heard of this technology.

These are batteries that use a solid electrolyte to regulate the flow of current between the anode and the cathode, rather than the liquid electrolyte that is used in lithium-ion batteries.

Using a solid electrolyte, you can build batteries that are smaller and offer higher energy densities, plus have longer lifespans and offer increased safety because liquid electrolytes are flammable.

Such a technology could present our greatest weapon against global warming.

Here’s why

It would provide cheap mass-energy-storage. This is what is needed if we want a truly abundant and sustainable source of renewable energy that can replace fossil fuels completely. We need to be able to store energy so we can use it when the sun doesn’t shine or the wind doesn’t blow.

The concept of mass energy-storage is similar to how water companies use reservoirs to ensure a constant supply of water, even in drought conditions. This is the only way we can make renewable energy a viable alternative to fossil fuels and cut carbon emissions.

It would also make electric vehicles a lot greener than they are today because right now we largely use electricity generated by fossil fuels to power them.

Germany could lead the way

Across the border from Switzerland, we have access to the manufacturing innovation of Germany. The country’s auto manufactures have been building and pushing technological boundaries for more than 100 years.

They have no intention of stopping.

Germany has already announced a one-billion-euro investment into battery-development, and part of this has been allocated to a project called FestBatt (fest meaning solid in German).

It makes perfect sense. It's a well-planned and strategic move by the German government to gain an early comparative advantage with solid-state batteries over Asian manufacturing rivals.

If Germany succeeds, it could be hugely disruptive to the global battery manufacturing industry. It could also be a significant game changer for Germany's auto manufacturers, creating new opportunities to redefine and distribute the global market share of battery manufacturing between Europe and Asia.

This is where Blackstone Resources has decided to invest. It wants to expand its research into battery technology and pioneer new manufacturing techniques, right on the door step of Germany’s auto-manufacturers. We want to be in Germany, ready for when the great transition happens.

Economists often underestimate the impact that technology can have to future developments. This is partly because technological change is hard to predict. It is difficult to also forecast what it will lead too.

However, I believe the world has now realised that global warming is happening and this will spark a new wave of unpredictable innovation. I’m sure battery technology will be an important part of this story, which is why I believe better battery technology could one day help save our planet.

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