Here We Go Again
“I keep hearing about battery innovation, but it never makes it to my phone.” – Evan Spiegel
For those that have been in and around alternative energy research for the better part of long careers, nothing makes the eyes roll harder than loud proclamations of breakthrough advances in battery technology. Consider this fun exercise: open up Google, search “battery breakthrough,” click “News,” and customize the results for any random six-month window in the past 20 years. Select an article that catches your eye and you’ll find exciting claims like this one from 2005 (emphasis added throughout):
“A rechargeable battery that can be fully charged in just 6 minutes, lasts 10 times as long as today’s rechargeables and can provide bursts of electricity up to three times more powerful is showing promise in a Nevada lab.
New types of battery are badly needed. Nokia’s chief technologist Yrjö Neuvo warned last year that batteries are failing to keep up with the demands of the increasingly energy-draining features being crammed into mobile devices.”
And another from 2011, with the humorously ironic title “No joke: This is the biggest battery breakthrough ever”:
“A pioneer in battery research who already successfully launched a $350 million company to supply batteries to the likes of GE and Chrysler has done it again — only this time, ‘it’ represents the complete reinvention of battery technology as we know it.
This technology is in the research phase, but if it can be cost-effectively brought to market — and there's every reason to believe that it could be — it could revolutionize the way we store and transport energy, in the process fully replacing fossil fuels and especially oil.”
(If you have to forewarn that your article is “no joke,” the odds of it being unserious are, as it turns out, pretty high.)
As sure as eggs are eggs, we were hardly surprised to receive countless emails and Twitter direct messages asking for our view on the latest battery breakthrough celebration making its way through the hype cycle. This particular rendition comes to us via The Telegraph, a fine newspaper to which we happily subscribe. Boldly titled “The coming EV batteries will sweep away fossil fuel transport, with or without net zero,” the opening salvo strikes a familiar tone:
“The Argonne National Laboratory in the US has essentially cracked the battery technology for electric vehicles, discovering a way to raise the future driving range of standard EVs to a thousand miles or more. It promises to do so cheaply without exhausting the global supply of critical minerals in the process.
The joint project with the Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT) has achieved a radical jump in the energy density of battery cells. The typical lithium-ion battery used in the car industry today stores about 200 watt-hours per kilo (Wh/kg). Their lab experiment has already reached 675 Wh/kg with a lithium-air variant.”
Journalist Ambrose Evans-Pritchard goes on to dream a little more:
“This is a high enough density to power trucks, trains, and arguably mid-haul aircraft, long thought to be beyond the reach of electrification. The team believes it can reach 1,200 Wh/kg. If so, almost all global transport can be decarbonised more easily than we thought, and probably at a negative net cost compared to continuation of the hydrocarbon status quo.”
There are good reasons stories like these keep going viral. Primarily, a true breakthrough in battery development that could be viably commercialized would indeed be a significant, newsworthy event. Even incremental improvements over the existing commercial state-of-the-art are incredibly difficult to achieve. Moore’s Law does not apply to battery development, and no amount of hand-waving over “S-curves” and “exponential rates of change” is going to change that reality.
Secondarily, the incentives to exaggerate the meaning of otherwise pedestrian technology advances are strong – funding, tenure, and fame await those who are profiled in such pieces, while humility is often the root cause of a stalled career.
How can the non-technical reader parse such reports to properly assess their impact? Let’s make an analysis model together that can be applied to Evans-Pritchard’s piece (and any other sure to follow on its heels).