A new way to identify battery materials suitable for mass production could revolutionize energy storage.
Electric cars could travel farther,
and smart phones could have more powerful processors and better,
brighter screens, thanks to batteries based on new materials being
developed by San Diego–based Wildcat Discovery Technologies.
The company is accelerating the identification of valuable energy
storage materials by testing thousands of substances at a time. In March
of last year, it announced a lithium cobalt phosphate cathode that
boosts energy density by nearly a third over current cathodes in popular
lithium-ion phosphate batteries. The company also unveiled an
electrolyte additive that allows batteries to work more reliably at
Choosing the optimal materials for batteries is a particularly tricky
problem. The devices have three principal components: an anode, a
cathode, and an electrolyte. Not only can each be formed from almost any
blend of a huge number of compounds, but the three components have to
work well together. That leaves many millions of promising combinations
to explore.To hunt down winning combinations, Wildcat has adopted a strategy
originally developed by drug discovery labs: high-throughput
combinatorial chemistry. Instead of testing one material at a time,
Wildcat methodically runs through thousands of tests in parallel,
synthesizing and testing some 3,000 new material combinations a week.
"We've got materials in the pipeline that could triple energy density,"
says CEO Mark Gresser.
Others have tried the combinatorial technique to find new battery
materials, but they've run into a stumbling block. The easy way to test
thousands of materials is to deposit a sample of each one in a thin film
atop a substrate. This approach did allow previous researchers to turn
up promising materials for battery components—but then candidates would
typically prove unsuited to cost-effective large-scale production
To avoid that time-wasting detour, Wildcat found ways to produce
samples using miniaturized versions of large-scale production
techniques. In effect, the candidate materials are being tested for ease
of manufacturing at the same time as they're being tested for
performance. Wildcat also tests the materials wired together as actual
batteries, and in a variety of potential operating conditions. "There
are a lot of variables that affect battery performance, including
temperature and voltage, and we examine all of them," says Gresser. The
result is that a material that performs well in a Wildcat test bed will
probably perform well in field tests.
If Wildcat is successful, its efforts could lead to batteries that
are smaller or more powerful than their present-day
counterparts—improvements that will appeal to the makers of smart phones
and electric vehicles alike.
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