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Articles from 2018 In August


August 31 – Day 5 – Prototyping an ARMED Connectable Sensor Node

Webinar Information
Start Date: Aug 31, 2018 - 06:00 PM UTC

What do you get when you ARM a postage stamp-sized sensor platform with a microphone, an accelerometer, a gyroscope, a magnetometer, a barometer, and a Bluetooth radio? (Hint: Today’s lecture title)

Need for Batteries in Stationary Applications Is Growing Fast

Need for Batteries in Stationary Applications Is Growing Fast

With the country’s electrical infrastructure aging and renewable energy use growing, batteries for stationary applications are taking on greater importance than ever before, an expert will tell attendees at the upcoming Battery Show.

“There’s obviously a very important market for batteries in the automotive sector,” Bill Mitchell, senior director of distributed energy systems for Jabil Inc., told Design News. “But there’s an equally important market in the stationary sector. We’re seeing the markets growing in commercial, industrial, residential, grid storage, and data centers. The use of batteries is multiplying in all those markets.”

Bill Mitchell of Jabil: “We’re seeing the markets growing in commercial, industrial, residential, grid storage, and data centers. The use of batteries is multiplying in all those markets.” (Image source: Jabil Inc.)

Mitchell will host a workshop, the first of its kind at The Battery Show, called Batteries to Support Critical Power Grids. It will examine the forces conspiring to push giant batteries into new kinds of storage applications. It will also look at end-of-life issues—the role of used automotive batteries on the grid and the recycling of stationary batteries after their usefulness has ended.

Mitchell said a number of powerful forces are pushing stationary batteries to the forefront. The first, he said, is the country’s aging infrastructure. “As the population continues to grow and shift, the transmission and distribution lines are often incapable of keeping up with the demand,” he told us. “So you get into a situation where you have to invest lots of money in new infrastructure. And batteries can help there by deferring the transmission and distribution investments, so you can get electricity to people more cost effectively.”

Batteries will also be critical for renewable power systems, he said. Often, intermittency prevents renewable sources from being available when power is most needed. But by pairing battery storage with renewables, solar and wind can be more readily available. “If you can couple renewables with energy storage, you can turn a renewable asset into a dispatchable asset,” Mitchell told us.

Utilities have said that storage becomes critical as renewables approach a penetration level of about 20% to 30%. In the past, energy storage was sometimes done with dams, pumped hydro systems, and compressed air. But such systems are losing favor in recent years, Mitchell noted. “There’s more worry over the environmental impact of damming up rivers,” he said. “So its getting harder and harder to build those kinds of facilities.”

At The Battery Show workshop, five different speakers will discuss solutions for grid-based storage. They will also address commercial, industrial, and residential as well as off-grid storage systems for economically depressed areas.  Most of the applications will involve lithium-ion battery chemistries, but one speaker will also address vanadium redox flow batteries for grid applications.

Another topic of discussion will be the use of retired lithium-ion automotive batteries. “At the end of its life, a car battery still has about 80% of its initial capacity,” Mitchell told us. “Although you don’t want to use it for a car anymore because it doesn’t offer enough (driving) range, it would be perfectly acceptable to use it on the ground for stationary applications.”

Mitchell added that the discussions will revolve not only around the technology, but around the economics as well. “The biggest challenge is cost, cost, and cost,” Mitchell said. “So the people (at the workshop) will talk about how the economics work, and how to make these systems viable.”

The workshop will take place on Monday, September 10 from 2 p.m. to 5 p.m. at the Suburban Collection Showplace in Novi, MI.

Senior technical editor Chuck Murray has been writing about technology for 34 years. He joined Design News in 1987, and has covered electronics, automation, fluid power, and auto.

The Battery Show logoNorth America's Premier Battery Conference.
Join our in-depth conference program with over 100 technical discussions covering topics from new battery technologies and chemistries to BMS and thermal management. 
The Battery Show. Sept. 11-13, 2018, in Novi, MI. Register for the event, hosted by Design News’ parent company UBM.

New Manufacturing Technique Prints Electronics Like Newspapers

printed electronics

Though printed newspapers may one day become a thing of the past, researchers are taking inspiration from the process used to print them to create a new product: electronic devices. Researchers at Purdue University have developed a manufacturing technique that uses a process akin to newspaper printing for the formation of smoother and more flexible metals. They believe the low-cost process can form the basis for fabricating ultra-fast electronic devices, said Ramses Martinez, assistant professor of industrial engineering and biomedical engineering at the university, in a Purdue news release.

Roll-to-roll laser-induced superplasticity, a new fabrication method developed by researchers at Purdue University, prints metals at the nanoscale needed for making electronic devices ultra-fast. (Image source: Purdue University/Ramses Martinez)

Industry Tools

Devices like smartphones, laptops, and other electronics can only process information at a high speed due to internal metallic circuitry. Currently, these circuits are typically made by passing a thin rain of liquid metal drops through a stencil mask in the shape of a circuit—a technique similar to spraying graffiti on walls. The problem with this technique, however, is that it “generates metallic circuits with rough surfaces, causing our electronic devices to heat up and drain their batteries faster,” Martinez said.

He and his team think the process they developed solves this issue. It combines tools already used in industry for manufacturing metals on a large scale with the speed and precision of roll-to-roll newspaper printing, Martinez said.

The process removes fabrication barriers that currently exist, paving the way for electronics that are faster than they are today. For speed, they require smaller metal components, which will require a high resolution for fabricating them at the nanoscale sizes needed for ultra-fast electronics, he said. "Forming metals with increasingly smaller shapes requires molds with higher and higher definition, until you reach the nanoscale size," Martinez said. "Adding the latest advances in nanotechnology requires us to pattern metals in sizes that are even smaller than the grains they are made of. It's like making a sand castle smaller than a grain of sand."

Roll to Roll

The process developed by the Purdue team—called roll-to-roll laser-induced superplasticity—allows for this by using conventional carbon dioxide lasers, which are already common for industrial cutting and engraving. It enables the fabrication of nano-scale metal components that are both smooth and have a high resolution, Martinez said: "Printing tiny metal components like newspapers makes them much smoother. This allows an electric current to travel better with less risk of overheating.”

Specifically, the process uses a rolling stamp like the ones used to print newspapers at high speed, researchers said. The technique can induce, briefly, "super-elastic" behavior to different metals by the application of high-energy laser shots, Martinez explained. This enables the metal to flow into the nanoscale features of the rolling stamp, allowing the desired result.

The team envisions that this type of fabrication of electronic devices will pave the way for applications like touchscreens covered with nanostructures capable of interacting with light and generating 3D images, Martinez said. It also will make the fabrication of highly sensitive biosensors more cost-effective. Researchers published a paper on their work in the journal Nano Letters.

Elizabeth Montalbano is a freelance writer who has written about technology and culture for 20 years. She has lived and worked as a professional journalist in Phoenix, San Francisco and New York City. In her free time she enjoys surfing, traveling, music, yoga and cooking. She currently resides in a village on the southwest coast of Portugal.

ESC, Embedded Systems ConferenceToday's Insights. Tomorrow's Technologies.
ESC returns to Minneapolis, Oct. 31-Nov. 1, 2018, with a fresh, in-depth, two-day educational program designed specifically for the needs of today's embedded systems professionals. With four comprehensive tracks, new technical tutorials, and a host of top engineering talent on stage, you'll get the specialized training you need to create competitive embedded products. Get hands-on in the classroom and speak directly to the engineers and developers who can help you work faster, cheaper, and smarter. Click here to register today!

August 30 – Day 4 – An ARMED Mobile Sensor Node Reference Design

Webinar Information
Start Date: Aug 30, 2018 - 06:00 PM UTC

This lecture revolves around mating a sensor platform with differing communications methods. Because one method is not offered in prototype form, we will build our own.

These Are the Most Hyped Technologies of 2018

<p>Widespread artificial intelligence and a rise in do-it-yourself biohacking are among the trends we should see gathering big momentum sometime in the next decade. That's according to the 2018 Hype Cycle report released by global research and advisory firm Gartner. For its latest report, Gartner analyzed over 2,000 emerging technologies and came up with a list of 35 that it believes are “must-watch” technologies for the coming years.</p><p><strong>What Is the Hype Cycle?</strong></p><p>Gartner designed the Hype Cycle to provide businesses with a graphic representation of how technologies move from conception to possible ubiquity. The idea is that if you understand where a technology is on the Hype Cycle, you can get a sense of the risk and rewards associated with adopting it at a given time. Gartner has never released a full methodology on how it compiles its listings, and the Hype Cycle has been criticized as being unscientific and, at times, vague. But that hasn't stopped numerous technology companies from seeking it as a source of guidance over the decades since the first Hype Cycle was published in 1995.</p><p>The Hype Cycle is based on a simple premise, first outlined by futurist Ray Amara: “We tend to overestimate the effect of a technology in the short run and underestimate the effect in the long run.”</p><p>To that end, the cycle features five stages:</p><p><strong><strong>Innovation Trigger:</strong></strong> The kick-off point for a new innovation. This is about the time a technology leaves the lab or university and starts being noticed by media, but has no commercial product behind it yet.</p><p><strong><strong>Peak of Inflated Expectations:</strong></strong> Hype builds as stories of success and failure with the technology begin to emerge. This is when early adopters will really start to jump on the train.</p><p><strong><strong>Trough of Disillusionment:</strong></strong> The honeymoon phase is over. Failures of use cases and failures of expectation begin to emerge that can steer risk-adverse companies away from a technology.</p><p><strong><strong>Slope of Enlightenment:</strong></strong> Now that disillusionment has set in, a technology starts to find its real place and footing. You start to see fewer “novel” applications of a technology and more iterations on proven use cases.</p><p><strong><strong>Plateau of Productivity:</strong></strong> The technology goes mainstream and its value and relevance to the market is clear and taking off. If you're an early adopter or the type to be ahead of the curve, this will be about the time your parents and grandparents start asking if you've heard of a technology.</p><p>So which technologies are the ones to watch? Which ones are peaking in their hype and what others are facing disillusionment and a possible fade-out before they reach mass adoption? Click through the slideshow to find out.</p>

What technologies do you see peaking or failing in the next two to five years? Do you think there's anything the Hype Cycle missed? Let us know in the comments!

Chris Wiltz is a Senior Editor at Design News covering emerging technologies including AI, VR/AR, and robotics.

ESC, Embedded Systems ConferenceToday's Insights. Tomorrow's Technologies.
ESC returns to Minneapolis, Oct. 31-Nov. 1, 2018, with a fresh, in-depth, two-day educational program designed specifically for the needs of today's embedded systems professionals. With four comprehensive tracks, new technical tutorials, and a host of top engineering talent on stage, you'll get the specialized training you need to create competitive embedded products. Get hands-on in the classroom and speak directly to the engineers and developers who can help you work faster, cheaper, and smarter. Click here to submit your registration inquiry today.
 

A Battery Electrolyte That Solidifies on Impact

impact resistance lithium ion battery

A well-known problem with commercial lithium ion batteries is their flammability. If a lithium ion cell is punctured or suffers an impact, the thin plastic insulating layer between the anode (negative electrode) and cathode (positive electrode) can rupture. This rupture can allow the electrodes to come into contact, shorting them out and causing the liquid flammable organic solvent electrolyte in the battery to catch fire.

The flammability of the organic solvents used in electrolytes can be reduced by adding fluorinated compounds and other additives. Work is also underway to develop a solid electrolyte, which would reduce flammability while increasing battery performance and energy density through the use of lithium metal anodes. But solid electrodes are predicted to be at least five years away.

The addition of powdered silica (in blue container) to the polymer separation layer (white sheet) between electrodes inside a test battery (gold bag) creates a non-Newtonian electrolyte fluid that reduces damage on impact to help prevent lithium-ion battery fires.(Image source: Gabriel Veith)

Non-Newtonian

Researchers at Oak Ridge National Laboratory have come up with an idea that improves the safety of lithium ion batteries that are subjected to impacts. Gabriel Veith, Ph.D.—a researcher at Oak Ridge—found that he and his team could convert the liquid organic solvent electrolyte of a lithium ion battery into a non-Newtonian fluid by the addition of 200-nanometer-diameter sized particles of silica.  

The viscosity of a non-Newtonian fluid is dependent upon the shear rate. At very high rates, such as with an impact, it can become a solid. This non-Newtonian characteristic results from a colloid—a suspension of tiny, solid particles suspended in a liquid. To create the battery colloid, the silica particles were suspended in a common lithium ion battery electrolyte. On impact, the silica particles clump together, blocking the flow of the fluid and also the lithium ions.

Superfine Sand

According to a news release from the American Chemical Society, the researchers used 200-nanometer-diameter particles of silica that were perfectly spherical. This is essentially what the researchers called “a superfine sand.” They note, "If you have that very uniform particle size, the particles disperse homogeneously in the electrolyte, and it works wonderfully. If they're not homogenously sized, then the liquid becomes less viscous on impact, and that's bad," said Veith.

Other labs have examined non-Newtonian shear thickening of electrolytes to make lithium ion batteries safer. Previous work has been undertaken with irregular-shaped particles of “fumed” silica and with rod-shaped silica particles. According to the news release, Veith thinks that the spherical particles he and his team used are “easier to make than the rod-shaped silica and have a faster response and more stopping power on impact than the fumed silica.”

There are some tricks required in manufacturing batteries with non-Newtonian fluid electrolytes. Normally, the organic solvents are simply squirted into the battery case as one of the last steps of the manufacturing process before the battery is sealed. “You can’t do that with a shear-thickening electrolyte because the minute you try to inject it, it solidifies,” said Veith. To solve this problem, the researchers found that they could put the silica powder in place in the battery before adding the liquid electrolyte—a concept for which the team is seeking a patent.

One advantage of adding silica to the electrolyte is that it can be accomplished on existing battery manufacturing machinery. Veith’s research team expects the non-Newtonian electrolyte fluid will find usage in drones, but would eventually like it to enter the automotive market, helping to make electric vehicles safer.

Senior Editor Kevin Clemens has been writing about energy, automotive, and transportation topics for more than 30 years. He has masters degrees in Materials Engineering and Environmental Education and a doctorate degree in Mechanical Engineering, specializing in aerodynamics. He has set several world land speed records on electric motorcycles that he built in his workshop.

The Battery Show logoNorth America's Premier Battery Conference.
The Battery Show, Sept. 11-13, 2018, in Novi, MI, will feature  more than 100 technical discussions covering topics ranging from new battery technologies to thermal management. Register for the event, hosted by Design News’ parent company UBM.

Electronic Stickers Make Any Objects ‘Smart’ for IoT Expansion

electronic IoT sticker

Researchers have been working tirelessly in recent years to come up with smaller and flexible sensors for myriad Internet of Things (IoT) devices. Such devices are beginning to flood the market on their way to becoming ubiquitous throughout businesses, people’s homes, and even public locations. A team at Purdue University and the University of Virginia has come up with a solution in the development of electronic stickers that could allow these devices to sense their environment and eventually connect with other devices.

New Method

The stickers were created using a new fabrication method invented by a team led by Chi Hwan Lee, Purdue assistant professor of biomedical engineering and mechanical engineering. The method uses something called “transfer printing” to make tiny, thin-film electronic circuits that can be peeled from a surface.

This process eliminates several manufacturing steps and their associated costs. It also can turn any object essentially into a “smart object” that can sense its environment or be controlled through the application of a high-tech sticker, Lee told Design News.

“I thought that it would be great to have sticker-like thin-film sensors, such that it can be easily pasted onto any place of interest,” he said. Indeed, billions of objects ranging from smartphones and watches to buildings, appliances, machine parts, and medical devices have now become wireless sensors of their environments to create an ever-expanding IoT network. “With this approach, any surface can become functional and smart,” he added.

A thin-film electronic circuit can peel easily from its silicon wafer with water, making the wafer reusable for building a nearly infinite number of circuits. (Image source: Purdue University image/Chi Hwan Lee)

The technology enabling these devices to communicate and sense their environment and each other will need to allow complex functionality in smaller and simpler form factors that won’t weigh down devices or drain their energy. Until now, embedding high-performance electronic functionality into an arbitrary surface or substrate has been limited because of materials and manufacturing processes, Lee said.

Most of today’s electronic circuits are individually built on their own silicon “wafer,” a flat and rigid substrate that can withstand the high temperatures and chemical etching that are used to remove the circuits from the wafer. However, that process damages the silicon wafer, forcing the manufacturing process to accommodate an entirely new wafer each time. The sticker-like thin-film sensor technology can overcome this challenge by streamlining and simplifying the process considerably, Lee said. “Uniquely, this transfer-printing approach utilizes a controlled interfacial de-bonding process in a water environment at room temperature that allows clean, intact delamination of pre-fabricated thin-film devices from the original wafer,” Lee explained.

This is far simpler than conventional transfer-printing methods for electronic materials, he noted. “Using mechanical peeling in water rather than soaking in an etching solution for a long time can provide benefits in the manufacturing scheme in terms of simplicity, controllability, and cost-effectiveness.” 

Lee said the sticker system can include various kinds of thin-film sensors that are incorporated with nanoscale semiconducting materials, such as silicon nanomembranes, nanoribbons, and nanowires—all of which are adhered on the surface of a thermally releasable tape. “The sticker can serve as a temporary holder in which you can easily handle and paste the electronics onto the surface where you want them to be, and then you can easily remove the sticker from the surface, leaving the electronics behind,” he explained.

Researchers experimented with the use of stickers—placing one, for example, on a flower pot, which made the pot capable of sensing temperature changes that could affect the plant’s growth. “Any objects can become smart and functional in this scheme…to detect environmental parameters, such as temperature and light, and/or provide electronic features, such as switches to operate LEDs, etc.,” Lee explained.

The team envisions that their technology even can be attached onto the service of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) to monitor environmental gases or other conditions during flight. Researchers plan to continue their work to improve the technology, Lee said. Specifically, the team aims to overcome challenges associated with integrating the stickers with thin-film renewable-energy sources, such as solar cells and other energy harvesters—essentially to create a self-sustainable sensor system for myriad IoT devices, Lee said. 

Researchers published a paper on their work in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. They also posted a YouTube video demonstrating their research.

Elizabeth Montalbano is a freelance writer who has written about technology and culture for 20 years. She has lived and worked as a professional journalist in Phoenix, San Francisco, and New York City. In her free time, she enjoys surfing, traveling, music, yoga, and cooking. She currently resides in a village on the southwest coast of Portugal.

ESC, Embedded Systems ConferenceToday's Insights. Tomorrow's Technologies.
ESC returns to Minneapolis, Oct. 31-Nov. 1, 2018, with a fresh, in-depth, two-day educational program designed specifically for the needs of today's embedded systems professionals. With four comprehensive tracks, new technical tutorials, and a host of top engineering talent on stage, you'll get the specialized training you need to create competitive embedded products. Get hands-on in the classroom and speak directly to the engineers and developers who can help you work faster, cheaper, and smarter. Click here to register today!

August 29 – Day 3 –Coding an ARMED and Secure IoT Sensor Node

Webinar Information
Start Date: Aug 29, 2018 - 06:00 PM UTC

Remember the casino fishtank sensor hack? This lecture will show you how to keep your IoT sensor device from “tanking” by ARMING it with a Microchip SAM L11.

Affectiva, SoftBank Partner to Give Robots an Emotion-Sensing Upgrade

Affectiva, SoftBank Partner to Give Robots an Emotion-Sensing Upgrade

Pepper is often seen in customer service applications. With Affectiva's Emotional AI, the robot will be able to recognize a wider, and more subtle, range of human emotions. (Image source: SoftBank Robotics)

If you follow the robotics space, you're probably familiar with Pepper. This humanoid robot from SoftBank Robotics has found a place in hotels, banks, and retail stores all over Japan, where it handles customer service and concierge tasks. The draw of the robot has always been its ability to identify four basic emotions—joy, surprise, anger, and sadness—via a combination of face, voice, and body language recognition, and adjust its behavior accordingly.

But a newly announced partnership between SoftBank and AI company Affectiva is aiming to make Pepper even more emotionally intelligent. Boston-based Affectiva is the creator of Emotion AI, a deep learning framework specifically for recognizing more complex human emotions, such as boredom, disgust, fear, and levels of alertness. By implementing Affectiva's Emotion AI into Pepper, SoftBank is hoping to expand the range of emotions that the robot can recognize, and thus augment its capabilities and ability to interact with humans.

“There’s a significant opportunity for robots like Pepper to improve the way we work and live, as we’ve seen through the many roles Pepper has already taken on as a companion and a concierge,” Marine Chamoux, an Affective computing roboticist at SoftBank, said in a press statement. “Our partnership with Affectiva will help us to take Pepper’s abilities to the next level, allowing Pepper to better respond to the many emotional and cognitive states people experience.”

In a statement of her own, Dr. Rana el Kaliouby, co-founder and CEO of Affectiva, said robots are going to need the same social awareness that the people around them have in order to become effective coworkers (cobots) or companions. “As robots take on increasingly interactive roles with humans in many corners of society—spanning healthcare, retail, and even entering our homes—there’s a critical need for us to foster a deeper understanding and mutual trust between people and robots,” she said.

Affectiva's Emotion AI combines algorithms for image recognition with neural networks aimed at learning to find patterns in very large data sets. By training its AI on a very large dataset of faces and expressions (over six million faces representing 87 countries, according to the company), Affectiva has created an AI capable of identifying emotions in real time based on even subtle facial movements and cues.

Prior to the SoftBank announcement, Affectiva has also been working to implement Emotion AI into autonomous and connected cars. Here, a vehicle would be capable of recognizing the emotional states of drivers and passengers—even identifying states such as drowsiness and road rage—and acting or adjusting itself according to the occupant's emotional state. The car may adjust the AC, turn up the music volume to awaken a drowsy driver, or even pull itself over if a driver falls asleep. In emergency situations, it's even feasible to conceive of an autonomous car that could recognize a driver in distress (a heart attack, for example) and divert itself to the nearest hospital while alerting 9-1-1.

Neither company has made a formal announcement as to when the first Pepper units with Emotion AI installed will begin rolling out into markets. But SoftBank's Chamoux said this is “only the beginning” and represents only a step in continuing to evolve Pepper into a robot that can more naturally interact with humans. “The partnership really signifies the next generation of human-machine interaction, as we approach a point where our interactions with devices and robots like Pepper more closely mirror how people interact with one another,” Chamoux said.

Chris Wiltz is a Senior Editor at Design News covering emerging technologies including AI, VR/AR, and robotics.

ESC, Embedded Systems ConferenceToday's Insights. Tomorrow's Technologies.
ESC returns to Minneapolis, Oct. 31-Nov. 1, 2018, with a fresh, in-depth, two-day educational program designed specifically for the needs of today's embedded systems professionals. With four comprehensive tracks, new technical tutorials, and a host of top engineering talent on stage, you'll get the specialized training you need to create competitive embedded products. Get hands-on in the classroom and speak directly to the engineers and developers who can help you work faster, cheaper, and smarter. Click here to submit your registration inquiry today.
 

New Battery Chemistries Offer Alternatives for EVs and Grid Applications

New Battery Chemistries Offer Alternatives for EVs and Grid Applications

A trio of new battery advancements could one day serve to boost energy density and cut cost in applications ranging from electric cars to grid storage systems, a materials scientist will tell attendees at the upcoming Battery Show.

Lynn Trahey of Argonne National Laboratory will say that scientists are studying magnesium and lithium-sulfur chemistries that could one day offer the potential to replace lithium-ion, as well as flow batteries with inexpensive membranes that could eventually act as alternatives to today’s vanadium redox batteries. Such batteries, if successful, would improve on the weaknesses of today’s existing chemistries and offer a vast new set of applications, she added.

Materials scientist Lynn Trahey of Argonne National Laboratory: “If you could have the same performance with lower cost, we think there would be a lot of interested markets.” (Image source: Argonne National Laboratory)

“It would be tough to make the grid as robust as it needs to be,” Trahey told Design News. “And it would be tough to make electric vehicles affordable for everyone. But if you could have the same performance with lower cost, we think there would be a lot of interested markets.”

Magnesium

Trahey said that magnesium-ion batteries could serve as an alternative to lithium-ion in electric cars and grid storage. Such batteries would use a cathode and electrolyte similar to that of lithium-ion. But the anode would be critically different. “In magnesium, we are not even considering the use of graphite, or any sort of intercalant anode,” Trahey said. “We are looking straight at magnesium metal.”

On paper, magnesium-ion offers a tremendous potential energy boost over lithium-ion—possibly as much as two-to-one. In theory, such capabilities would enable automakers to use batteries that are half the size, while offering the same power as today. Trahey emphasized, however, that such advancements face many technical challenges and are still far from the prototype stage. “Paper and practical advancements are very different,” she said.

Lithium-Sulfur

Argonne scientists are examining the possibility of replacing the graphite in a conventional lithium-ion anode with lithium metal and using sulfur for the cathode, instead of an expensive inorganic solid (such as cobalt). That combination would result in vastly lower costs, as sulfur is said to be literally “cheaper than dirt.”

Such an advancement comes with challenges, however, as many battery scientists have discovered over the years. In the past, lithium-sulfur has been plagued by low-cycle life and by the problems associated with the use of flooded electrolytes. Trahey said that Argonne is working on practical solutions for such issues. “What we are trying to do is engineer a battery that can match up with lithium-ion,” she told us. “If we can match up the performance of lithium-ion with these cheaper materials, then we will have a winner.”

Flow Batteries

Argonne scientists want to improve on the giant tank-based vanadium flow batteries sometimes employed in grid storage by changing the membranes that act as separators. The key, Trahey said, is to use so-called “macro-molecules” to replace the conventional ions in the flow battery. “In any separator, you’re trying to keep the ions apart from each other,” Trahey said. “And the ions are so small that we just asked, ‘What if we use macro-molecules?’ That way, we could use a size-selective membrane that is much, much cheaper.”

The lab’s scientists are studying the use of various macro-molecules that could enable such a membrane. They foresee the technology being employed in traditional grid storage applications to help deal with renewable intermittency, frequency regulation, and grid maintenance issues. “Our hope is it would be cheaper than vanadium redox and less toxic, so it could be worked on by people with less specialty training,” Trahey said.

Trahey cautioned that all three of these battery advancements are still at the basic research stage. “Battery improvements do not follow Moore’s Law,” she told us. “Batteries are highly complex chemical playgrounds, and so much is happening deep inside that you can’t always expect time to necessarily give you the battery you want.”

Trahey will be on hand at The Battery Show to discuss the benefits and challenges facing magnesium, lithium-sulfur, and flow batteries in a session called Emerging Chemistries: Fundamental Challenges.

Senior technical editor Chuck Murray has been writing about technology for 34 years. He joined Design News in 1987, and has covered electronics, automation, fluid power, and auto.

The Battery Show logoNorth America's Premier Battery Conference.
Join our in-depth conference program with over 100 technical discussions covering topics from new battery technologies and chemistries to BMS and thermal management. 
The Battery Show. Sept. 11-13, 2018, in Novi, MI. Register for the event, hosted by Design News’ parent company UBM.