IBM’s New Battery Design Utilises Seawater

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No heavy metals. New battery design from IBM boffins does not use cobalt and instead uses minerals extracted from sea water

Researchers at IBM have discovered a new battery design that is built without heavy metals, in what could be a big step forward in improving environmental worries over current battery designs.

The discovery was made by IBM Research, where its boffins were working on materials science innovation. This new design would remove the need for heavy metals in battery production, including no need for the precious metal cobalt.

Earlier this week Apple, Tesla, Alphabet, Dell, and Microsoft were hit with a lawsuit in the United States, over the mining of cobalt in Africa.

New design

New battery designs are desperately needed as sales of electric cars and smart energy grids increase, but currently battery designs are mostly highly toxic and come with a hefty environmental costs.

This is because many batteries contain heavy metals such as nickel and cobalt. But IBM Research has used three new and different proprietary materials, which have never before been recorded as being combined in a battery.

The IBM Research team in the IBM Research Battery Lab said they had discovered a chemistry for a new battery which does not use heavy metals or other substances with sourcing concerns.

“The materials for this battery are able to be extracted from seawater, laying the groundwork for less invasive sourcing techniques than current material mining methods,” said IBM.

IBM researchers worked with automotive, electrolyte and battery manufacturers, including Mercedes-Benz Research and Development, Central Glass (battery electrolyte supplier), and Sidus (a battery manufacturer) for commercial design of the battery.

“Just as promising as this new battery’s composition is its performance potential,” said Big Blue. “In initial tests, it proved it can be optimized to surpass the capabilities of lithium-ion batteries in a number of individual categories including lower costs, faster charging time, higher power and energy density, strong energy efficiency and low flammability.”

Indeed, IBM said that its new battery design could outperform lithium-ion across several sustainable technologies.

It said that its new design uses a cobalt and nickel-free cathode material, as well as a safe liquid electrolyte with a high flash point.

“This unique combination of the cathode and electrolyte demonstrated an ability to suppress lithium metal dendrites during charging, thereby reducing flammability, which is widely considered a significant drawback for the use of lithium metal as an anode material,” said IBM.

IBM said its discovery holds significant potential for electric vehicle batteries, where concerns such as flammability, cost and charging time come into play.

“Current tests show that less than five minutes are required for the battery – configured for high power – to reach an 80 percent state of charge,” said IBM. “Combined with the relatively low cost of sourcing the materials, the goal of a fast-charging, low-cost electric vehicle could become a reality.”

Long life cycle

“When optimized for this factor, this new battery design exceeds more than 10,000 W/L, outperforming the most powerful lithium-ion batteries available,” IBM claimed. “Additionally, our tests have shown this battery can be designed for a long-life cycle, making it an option for smart power grid applications and new energy infrastructures where longevity and stability is key.”

IBM said its new design is lower cost, as the active cathode materials tend to cost less because they are free of cobalt, nickel, and other heavy metals.

So besides the cheaper cost, the new design offers faster charging, high power and energy density, coupled with low flammability of electrolytes.

The new design will no doubt attract interest from tech firms that utilise current designs.

Apple in September this year reached an agreement with an unnamed third party supplier that will see it use recycled rare earth elements in its iPhone smartphones.

In 2017 Apple pledged to set itself the goal of “one day” making its devices using 100 percent recycled materials, rather than mining for metals and toxic rare materials such as tungsten and cobalt.

Google in August 2019 did the same when it pledged to include recycled materials to be in all of its ‘Made By Google’ products by 2022.

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Author: Tom Jowitt
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