By Haddon Libby

By now, everyone should have heard about Samsung Note 7 cellphones catching fire.  The problem is due to the type of battery used – a Lithium-ion battery.  This type of battery consists of two materials that combust if not separated by a thin film.  MIT professor, Don Sadoway, believes that Samsung tried to cram too much battery into too small a space making it easier for the thin film to become punctured thus causing the dangerous failure.  Given that most of the fires occurred while the phones were charging, Sadoway believes that software managing the recharges may have had a flaw that allowed the battery to charge past capacity causing the battery to overheat and the thin film to fail.  New software updates by Samsung on the Note 7 have limited recharge levels to 60% of the battery’s capacity which shortened the life of the batteries but was meant to keep the batteries from overcharging and catching fire.

Battery technology is expected to change significantly over the next few years as computer and car companies are investing heavily in the search for smaller, cheaper, longer-lasting and more stable portable power options. 

Scientists at Toyota are in the final developmental stages of a magnesium battery that does not need the shielding that Lithium-ion batteries require.  Not only is the magnesium battery more stable but less expensive and longer lasting.   French researchers have a similar idea but are using a sodium-ion mix while South Korean scientists are working on a fuel cell made of stainless steel.

A Spanish company has begun final testing on a new battery called the Grabat which is made of graphene.  Graphene is made of carbon atoms that look like a honeycomb but are only one-millionth the thickness of a piece of paper.  If successful, a car powered by a Grabat battery could travel 500 miles on a single charge while recharging 33 times faster than current technology.  The first use of this battery is planned for 2019.

Closer to home, the Colorado company Prieto has teamed up with Intel in developing a battery that uses a copper foam structure to create a battery that is not flammable, lasts longer and less expensive.

Over at Stamford, scientists are working on an aluminum graphite battery that is flexible, long lasting and charges in full in less than a minute.  While a battery charge lasts half the time of a Li-ion battery, the rapid recharge time offsets this weakness.

One of the better options being developed is at UC-Irvine where they are working on a gold nanowire battery.  Nanowires are 1000th the thickness of a human hair.  In the past, the wires broke down quickly making them ineffective as a power source.  Researchers at UC-Irvine have suspended these wires in a gel that may resolve this problem.  If this works, these batteries would outlast the devices that they power.

Alcatel is working on a solar film where you only need to expose your cellphone to light and it will recharge.  Expectations are that this product will not be ready to go to market until at least 2020.

One of the odder ideas is being funded by The Bill Gates Foundation where researchers are trying to convert urine to power while transforming this human waste product into materials that are easier to dispose of.  Additionally, the way you recharge devices is about to change.  uBeam is working on a method where you can recharge batteries using ultrasound waves.

One of the most futuristic ideas is at Georgia Tech where they are looking to use radio waves as a way to distribute power. All of this shows how the way we power our daily lives will be changing greatly in the very near future.  Our world which has relied on fossil fuels is rapidly evolving into a world powered by numerous renewable and clean fuel sources.

Haddon Libby is a Financial Advisory and Managing Director at Winslow Drake and can be reached at 760.449.6349 or by email at HLibby@WinslowDrake.com.

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