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New inexpensive aluminum-ion battery set to outlast competitors

Stanford University scientists have invented the first high-performance aluminum battery that's fast-charging, long-lasting and inexpensive. Researchers say the new technology offers a safe alternative to many commercial batteries in wide use today.

Mark Shwartz

Lithium-ion batteries may be on their last charge.

Stanford University researchers have unveiled the world's first long-lasting, fast-charging, inexpensive aluminum battery. The Stanford team said the technology could replace many commercial batteries in use today, including the lithium-ion batteries that power everything from iPhones to pacemakers to Tesla Motors' electric cars.

"We have developed a rechargeable aluminum battery that may replace existing storage devices, such as alkaline batteries, which are bad for the environment, and lithium-ion batteries, which occasionally burst into flames," Stanford chemistry professor and co-lead author, Hongjie Dai, said in a news release.

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The team's aluminum-ion battery, revealed in an article published this week in the science journal Nature, consists of a negatively charged aluminum anode and an innovative, positively charged graphite cathode. The prototype's two electrodes, which allow current to flow through the battery, are then fitted into a flexible polymer-coated pouch separated by an ionic liquid electrolyte.

The finished product is not only flexible, meaning it could potentially be used in bendable future devices, but it offers an "unprecedented charging time" of as little as one minute. The battery can also operate through 7,500 cycles before losing any capacity, the team said. This stands in stark contrast with typical lithium-ion batteries that can take hours to charge and withstand only about 1,000 charges before facing decay.

Lithium-ion batteries have dominated the market since the late-nineties, owing to their low maintenance and lack of "memory," which means that waiting until the battery's completely drained to recharge it is not required to prolong the battery's life.

"Millions of consumers use 1.5-volt AA and AAA batteries," Dr. Dai, who was not available for comment Tuesday, said in the release. "Our rechargeable aluminum battery generates about two volts of electricity. That's higher than anyone has achieved with aluminum."

Another major benefit of the technology is safety. "Our new battery won't catch fire, even if you drill through it," Dr. Dai said.

It's the cost of aluminum, however, that could really push the prototype toward wide adoption. Using the relatively common, inexpensive metal would cut the cost of batteries significantly.

However, consumers shouldn't expect to get their hands on the new invention in the immediate future, experts warned.

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Though the Stanford research team's technology has the potential to disrupt the industry, University of Toronto electrical engineering professor Olivier Trescases, who works with batteries and energy systems, said the challenge of coming up with a better battery has stumped countless researchers.

"Demonstrating a mass-producible battery that is 10 times lighter than what we have available today, at 10 times lower cost with the same reliability is the engineering equivalent of curing cancer," he said.

Dr. Trescases said the results appear "very encouraging," but added that it's simply too early to tell for sure.

He thinks the large-scale commercialization of a new battery technology will likely take 10 years or more.

Hari Subramaniam, the CEO of Toronto-based energy storage company eCAMION Inc., which uses batteries to build its systems, agreed. Even if the technology works as advertised, it could take five to seven years for the product to reach consumers, he said.

But a major investor taking an interest could expedite the process, Mr. Subramaniam added.

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"If you want to give it a couple hundred million dollars, you can build anything you want in two to three years," he said.

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