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Remember those Energizer Bunny commercials touting batteries that kept going, and going, and going?

Well, researchers at Washington State University have developed a new lithium ion battery that can actually keep going, and going, and going at about three times the current capacity.

As part of the Science + Technology Discovery Series of the Technology Alliance Program, WSU engineering professor Dr. M. Grant Norton will be speaking early Friday morning at The Rainier Club in Seattle to discuss his team’s potentially groundbreaking findings.

We got a chance to speak with Norton earlier this week to get a better idea of what he’ll be talking about. The current Deputy Editor-in-Chief of Journal of Materials Science has been a material science professor at WSU for over 20 years. His team has spent the past few years working on this new material and only the past 10 months actually building the battery.

GeekWire: Thanks for speaking with us, professor. Can you please explain your new technology to my 70-year-old grandma? 

Norton: “What we’re doing is looking at new materials technology to improve the performance in lithium ion batteries. Lithium ion batteries are the most common battery used in smartphones and laptops and tablet computers and also the dominant battery technology that people are developing for automobile applications like the Tesla Roadster.

There are limits to the performance of the device, whether it’s the car or the cell phone, because of the battery technology. We are essentially working to improve that technology so it would lead ultimately to improvements in the performance of the battery.”

GW: OK, that’s cool. Now for our more Geek-Y readers, can you go more in-depth?

Washington State professor M. Grant Norton

Norton: “If you look at a current lithium ion battery, one of the components is the anode electrode. That currently uses a form of carbon as the material and that carbon has a limit to the amount of energy that can be stored. That ultimately limits the performance of the battery. So what we’re doing is developing new anode technology that has the ability to store up to three times the energy of existing carbon-based anode technology. So that would translate into three times longer application times for your phone or laptop if that performance was translated to the rest of the battery component.”

GW: I understand this is made possible by replacing carbon with tin. What is so special about tin?

Norton: “Tin is known to store significantly more lithium than carbon does and this is work that was done well before we got into this area. This work dates back to the late 1990’s that came out of Stanford where they identified tin as having a significant performance advantage, theoretically, than carbon would.

The challenge that other researchers have found is making the tin in the form that gives it the stability through repeated cycling of discharge and charge cycling. The work they’ve done between 2000 and now has demonstrated that tin is a superior material, but they’ve shown it doesn’t have the stability so it limits the lifetime of the anode.

What we’ve been able to show is if you make it in this way that we’re making it at WSU, we can actually mitigate those problems that other groups have found with the limited lifetime. We’ve been able to do much longer charge and discharge cycles and maintaining the high energy compared to what other groups have published. Essentially their anode materials made of tin they degrade relatively quickly. What we’ve been able to show is that with this unique structure hat we produce through electroplating, that these cells are very, very stable.”

GW: What’s the plan from here?

Norton: “What we’re doing is a number of in-house tests on the batteries that we’re making and the goal is to supply them to the third party and get a third party validation. Then we’re in the process of forming a spinoff company from WSU where we would license the technology and try to take it toward commercialization.”

GW: Is your research game-changing?

Norton: “We’ve demonstrated  a material that has better performance than the existing technology and demonstrated it with a material that costs less to fabricate than the existing material. We’ve basically got not only a performance enhancement of almost three times, but also reduced the cost. Our material can be directly placed inside existing cells, so the battery manufacturer wouldn’t have to change anything other than switching out their existing anode material with our anode material.

In terms of game-changing, we’re not going to go from something that lasts 10 hours to 100 hours, but we might go from something that lasts 10 hours to something that lasts 30 hours. I think that’s an important improvement. It may not be a game-changer where it goes from 10 to 100 hours, but I think we would see significant improvements. And because the costs have come down as well it could open up additional markets for lithium ion batteries.”

Also, all of the materials that we’re using  is compatible with what the industry is doing right now, so the industry doesn’t have to retool in order to integrate what we’re doing. In fact, we had a discussion with a company in Detroit and they said because of the recent downturn in the automotive industry that the U.S. actually has an excess capacity in electroplating. This could potentially re-energize components of the U.S. manufacturing industry that is currently struggling at the moment. I think there’s a lot of exciting opportunities with this. ”

GW: Thanks for your time, Grant. 

More info on the Tech Alliance series is available here.

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