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There’s a new battery technology on the horizon, and there’s a good chance it’s going to change the way you use your devices — soon.  By replacing the graphite anode in lithium-ion batteries with titanium dioxide nanotubes, researchers at Nanyang Technical University of Singapore have been able to dramatically improve the charge time and durability of lithium-ion battery cells.

Why is this important?  Because, right now, all of us, in one way or another, find ourselves planning our lives around the limitations of modern battery technologies.

Consumers don’t buy electric cars, because batteries aren’t good enough (despite the vehicles themselves being faster, more efficient, and more durable).  Consumers worry about the charge of their smartphones.  Patients with implantable medical devices like pacemakers have to worry about the charge levels, and the consequences can be dire.  Modern batteries, despite massive advances in the recent years, are slow to charge, don’t store very much power, and degrade quite quickly.  As a result, they form the long tentpole in a lot of areas, from augmented reality Augmented Reality Games: Are They Worth The Money? Augmented Reality Games: Are They Worth The Money? Wouldn't it be easier to play a first person shooter if you were actually holding the gun? Or are such enhancements largely redundant in an age when mobile gaming can stand on its own. Read More to self driving cars Autonomous Cars: Are Robots Good for the Environment? Autonomous Cars: Are Robots Good for the Environment? The way we use cars is going to change.  Those changes will be wide-ranging, but one area that hasn't been investigated in as much detail: the impact on the environment. Read More .

There are a lot of new battery technologies on the horizon, Battery Technologies That Are Going to Change the World Battery Technologies That Are Going to Change the World Battery tech has been growing more slowly than other technologies, and is now the long tent pole in a staggering number of industries. What will the future of battery technology be? Read More  but this one is notable for how close it is to commercialization.

How Titanium Dioxide Batteries Work

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So how does the new breakthrough work?  In a conventional lithium-ion battery, the negative terminal (anode) is typically made of fine graphite, which has a relatively high surface area, allowing it to react efficiently with the acid in the battery, producing a current (or drawing a current, during charging).  However, these reactions are not perfect, and, over time the battery loses capacity.

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Right now, typical batteries lose a substantial fraction of their maximum charge capacity in just five hundred charge cycles (a little more than a year’s worth of being charged every day) — and, because the reaction generates heat, there are limits to how much juice you can pour into a battery without increasing the inefficiency of the reaction and risking thermal damage to the battery.

The team at NTU solved this by developing a simple, inexpensive technique for converting titanium dioxide, an abundant industrial material, into nano-tube structures about a thousand times thinner than a human hair.  This makes the chemical reactions that make the battery work substantially more efficient.

This has two effects: first, the battery can take more current with less heat, allowing the battery to be charged to 70% capacity in about two minutes.  Second, the battery’s chemical reactions are more efficient, both during use and recharging.  That means that the battery degrades much more slowly, allowing the same battery to potentially be used for more than two decades without being replaced.

Faster Charging and Longer Life

The batteries also ought to be somewhat more dense, since the nanotube gel How Nanotechnology is Changing the Future of Medicine How Nanotechnology is Changing the Future of Medicine The potential for nanotechnology is unprecedented. True universal assemblers will usher in a profound shift in the human condition. Of course, there's still a long way to go. Read More can bind to the terminal without the need for glues, a change in design that increases overall reactant mass.

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These new batteries will likely have wide-ranging implications, including helping to drop charge times at vehicle charging stations down to wait times comparable with traditional gas automobiles (the golden sub-five-minute-range). They may also save drivers from having to replace their batteries every few years, a chore that can cost thousands of dollars.

It also makes it much more practical to ‘fast-charge’ your devices throughout the day, as needed.  Forgot to charge your phone How to Make Your Phone's Battery Last Longer and Hold More Juice How to Make Your Phone's Battery Last Longer and Hold More Juice Battery life is one of the biggest struggles of modern-day electronics. Smartphones, tablets, and laptops all deal with it -- so what can you do to maximize the amount of time you get per charge? Read More last night?  No problem — you can throw it on the charger, and it’ll be ready to go by the time you find your other sock.  These contribute a lot of value to the way we use our devices, and will go a long way towards freeing us up from charge anxiety and letting us use our devices in a more natural, unencumbered way.

It’s not the silver bullet of denser, faster charging, and more durable, but two out of three ain’t bad.

New Batteries Coming Soon

Because the technology can be integrated into existing battery manufacturing processes, it’s likely that it’ll hit the market sooner rather than later.  The creator, Dr. Chen, is in the process of licensing the technology to a battery manufacturer, and expects the first batteries made with the technology to hit the market within two years.

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Rachid Yazami, the co-inventor of the graphite-anode lithium-ion battery and Dr. Chen’s colleague at NTU, feels that Chen’s technology is the logical next step forward for battery technology

“While the cost of lithium-ion batteries has been significantly reduced and its performance improved since Sony commercialised it in 1991, the market is fast expanding towards new applications in electric mobility and energy storage. […] Ideally, the charge time for batteries in electric vehicles should be less than 15 minutes, which Prof Chen’s nanostructured anode has proven to do.”

Are you excited for the future of battery technology? Which applications would most impact your life? Could this be the tipping point to buying an electric vehicle for you? Let us know in the comments!

Image credits: Battery Via Shutterstock, “Battery Recycling“, by Heather Kennedy, “Electric Car Charging,” by Alan Trotter, “Nanotubes-300,” by James Joel, “Carbon Nanotube,” by Geoff Hutchison

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