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Tech that changed our world

7 Nov 2023

I saw a fantastic meme online the other day and I think this very accurately and succinctly sums up the state of the world right now:

We live in a time where intelligent people
are being silenced so that stupid people won't be offended

It is so sad that we have come to this but this meme is so on-point.

That however, is not the topic of today's column. Today we talk batteries.

The invention of the lithium-ion battery with its hitherto unmatched energy density and relatively low cost has changed the world.

Earlier battery technologies such as lead-acid, nickel-cadmium and nickel-metal-hydride were, by comparison, rather weak, heavy and short-lived. These days we don't really expect the lead-acid batteries in our ICE cars to last much more than three or four years and running a portable device on zinc-carbon dry cells was an expensive thing to do.

Li-Ion batteries really changed all that and enabled many of the technologies that we now take for granted.

We have EVs that will drive over 400Km on a single charge, laptops that will run for hours without a power-cord in sight and supercomputers in our pockets that will work for a day or longer between recharges. Indeed, li-Ion batteries are the bee's knees.

However, they are not good enough.

If abused, Li-Ion batteries will do a Jekyll and Hyde in the blink of an eye and turn your favourite device into a road-flare with all the accompanying smoke and flames. That's not good.

When really called on to deliver a lot of power in a short period of time, such as if they are used in electrically powered aircraft and drones then they only last a few hundred charge-cycles before losing capacity and seeing a spike in internal resistance.

Right now there are armies of eager investors throwing everything they've got into creating a replacement for the humble helicopter. These eVTOL craft, we are told, will be the future of urban air travel. You'll be able to jump into one of these devices at a nearby "vertiport" and travel across a city in just a few short minutes before being safely deposited at your destination -- all for a fraction the price of the equivalent taxi ride.

Indeed, many of these companies already have prototypes flying and demonstrating their aerial prowess to the "oohs" and "aahs" of those who watch.

Sadly however, these companies are slowly coming to the realisation that whilst Li-Ion batteries may be great for "proof of concept", they simply do not deliver the levels of performance needed to make these craft a commercially viable proposition. I smile quietly at this because it's something I've said right from the get-go.

So now, instead of claiming "we're almost ready to go... give us more investment capital", these eVTOL companies are saying "as soon as the next generation of battery tech arrives, we'll be ready to go". There's a huge difference between these two statements.

It seems that many things now hinge on coming up with a new battery tech that is markedly better than Li-Ion.

We all want phones that don't need to be recharged *every* day. We also want EVs which can deliver ranges every bit as good or better than the ICE cars we drive today. Nobody really wants to be carrying several potential fire-starter devices containing battery tech that has proven to be more than a little fickle if abused.

Li-Ion has been the catalyst for massive advances but now it is also the thing that holds us back. We've reached the limits of its ability and now we crave something better.

Unfortunately, despite billions of dollars spent on research and development and countless press releases announcing "battery breakthrough" discoveries -- we're still using batteries that are based on technology that's more than a decade old.

Will Li-Ion tech be replaced?

Of course it will but the problem is that nobody knows how long it will be before the next generation of battery tech becomes readily available at an affordable price-point.

This leaves EV manufacturers in a rather awkward place.

Do they commit to building massive Li-Ion battery manufacturing plants and run with what we've got? Or do they wait for a while and hope that they can be the first to jump on the next generation of battery tech before investing. That would give them a huge advantage over their competitors, who'd have already tied up their capital in "old tech".

To be honest, I'm glad I'm just a consumer. I'd hate to be faced with making existential planning decisions based on unknowns such as exactly when new battery tech will appear.

Carpe Diem folks!

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