Why haven’t there been improvements to battery technology recently?
Answer by Jason M. Lemkin:
I will let the Chemical Engineers and Ph.D.s answer this question more capably.
But in the meantime, having co-founded one of the few successful battery start-ups (NanoGram Devices, acquired by Greatbatch), my learnings and understandings are/were:
- First, there are improvements, but they are on the order of 5% a year. But that does add up over time.
- Model issues. There isn’t even a fully functional model for a Lead Acid battery after > 100 years. In other words, in many cases, we don’t fully understand in all manners how our existing chemistries and batteries work, let alone future ones.
- Testing and reliability. It can take years to fully test new cells and new batteries. This can be accelerated with heat and other environmental accelerators, but it simply takes a lot of time to iterate. You can’t just write a script. 😉
- Cost. The markets are incredibly cost sensitive. Batteries are already extremely expensive, other than Lead Acid. The single battery in your mobile phone is one of the most expensive components in it. There are higher performance materials and options, which are well known to the market — but they are more expensive — and thus difficult to implement when the end customers are not willing to pay anything additional.
- Safety. High-energy density batteries are bombs – literally. And in anything that’s also highly rate capable and you get a bomb that blows up real fast, real hot. Every major battery manufacturer from Sony to Duracell has blown up or completely burned a battery plant to the ground, often in a horrific high-temperature lithium fire. These are really, really scary fires. And we’ve all seen laptops blow-up on the YouTube. See #3 above.
- Start-up/Capital Markets are Tough. These are tough markets to enter. It takes years to build a new production battery, then in some cases years to qualify it, and then you need the capital to manufacture the batteries at scale — and then you are selling into cost-constrained markets, like tools, automotive, electronics. It’s very hard to achieve a venture-ROI here. In fact not sure it’s ever been fully achieved. Certainly, there have been no Instagrams.
- Lab Experiments Rarely Scale Up. It’s pretty much a given than 95% of the great battery lab experiments that look so dramatically promising are never able to be scaled to production, meaning almost all of those wonderful advances in the lab you read about on Gizmodo or Engadget or wherever never, ever pan out in the real world. A pouch cell or button cell in the lab generally performs very, very differently from a scaled production battery. Don’t get too excited about lab results — even lab results from world-class researchers who spent years developing them. See #6 above. This makes investment very, very, very hard.
Finally, I’d note that at a practical level, since there have been almost no start-up successes or new successful battery companies built in the last 20 years — it’s almost impossible to recruit and hire. Even if you have the best new technology, plan, etc., there are only a handful of experienced, talented engineers in the country with any practical, commercial experience. This is surmountable, but makes it much harder than in other fields.