Most battery-powered devices, from smartphones and tablets to electric vehicles and energy storage systems, rely on lithium-ion battery technology. Because lithium-ion batteries are able to store a significant amount of energy in such a small package, charge quickly and last long, they became the battery of choice for new devices.

But new battery technologies are being researched and developed to rival lithium-ion batteries in terms of efficiency, cost and sustainability. 

New Battery Technologies 

  • Solid-state batteries
  • Lithium-sulfur batteries
  • Cobalt-free lithium-ion batteries
  • Sodium-ion batteries
  • Iron-air batteries
  • Zinc-based batteries

Many of these new battery technologies aren’t necessarily reinventing the wheel when it comes to powering devices or storing energy. They work much like lithium-ion batteries do, just with different materials. 

And while lithium-ion batteries have come a long way in the last few years, especially when it comes to extending the life of a smartphone on full charge or how far an electric car can travel on a single charge, they’re not without their problems. The biggest concerns — and major motivation for researchers and startups to focus on new battery technologies — are related to safety, specifically fire risk, and the sustainability of the materials used in the production of lithium-ion batteries, namely cobalt, nickel and magnesium.

How Do Lithium-Ion Batteries Work?

  • Lithium is stored in the battery’s anode, the positively charged electrode, and the cathode, which is the negatively charged electrode. 
  • A liquid electrolyte, or separator, transports positively charged lithium ions between the anode and cathode, the movement of which helps create free electrons in the anode. 
  • As a result, a charge is built up at the battery’s positive current collector, which flows through the device to the battery’s negative current collector. 
  • When powering the device, the anode is transferring lithium ions to the cathode, and when charging, the cathode is returning them. 

 

New Battery Technologies

Here are a few new battery technologies that could one day replace lithium-ion batteries.

 

An overview of solid-state batteries and their advantages. | Video: Undecided with Matt Ferrell

Solid-State Batteries

How Do They Work?

Instead of relying on a liquid or gel electrolyte, solid-state batteries use a solid electrolyte. These solid electrolytes are typically ceramic, glass, solid polymer or made with sulphites.

 

How Will They Be Used?

In 2023, the automaker BMW announced that it would begin testing solid-state batteries developed by Solid Power, a solid-state battery company, for use in its electric vehicles. The battery BMW will test will have a sulfide electrolyte, according to Autoweek. There’s also a push to develop solid-state batteries that could be used to power smartphones. And they’re already being used in pacemakers and some smartwatches, according to PCMag.

 

Pros and Cons of Solid-State Batteries

Compared to lithium-ion batteries, solid-state batteries are more efficient, packing more power with the same size battery. As a result, EV batteries could become more compact, charge faster and weigh less, which could increase range. Solid-state batteries are believed to last longer — with up to seven times more recharges during their lifetime, according to CAR Magazine. They’re also believed to be safer, because the solid electrolyte material is fireproof, unlike lithium-ion batteries, which are known to pose a fire risk.

Currently, the one drawback to solid-state batteries is how difficult it is to scale a technology in its early stage for widespread use, given testing and limited production capabilities. But solid-state batteries could be powering some EVs as early as 2024, according to CNBC.

 

How sulfur can be used to create safer, longer lasting batteries. | Video: Undecided with Matt Ferrell

Lithium-Sulfur Batteries

How Do They Work?

This new battery technology uses sulfur for the battery’s cathode, which is more sustainable than nickel and cobalt typically found in the anode with lithium metal.

 

How Will They Be Used?

Companies like Conamix, an electric vehicle battery manufacturer, are working to make lithium-sulfur batteries a reality, aiming to have them commercially available within the next five years, according to the clean energy news site, CleanTechnica. There’s even hope lithium-sulfur batteries could be used to power aircraft and trains, along with energy storage, according to Electrek, an electric transportation and sustainable energy publication.

 

Pros and Cons of Lithium-Sulfur Batteries

Lithium-sulfur batteries are believed to be more efficient than lithium-ion batteries, which could increase the range and storage capacity of electric vehicles. Additionally, sulfur is affordable and abundant, which could mean lower cost. And since the manufacturing process for these batteries is like the one used for lithium ion batteries, the same facilities could also be used for production. They also require less energy to produce, which could reduce costs by more than 25 percent, according to Conamix’s website.

One of the major drawbacks of this new battery technology is corrosion, though new designs are in the works to curb it. Another disadvantage is that these batteries in their current state don’t last nearly as long as lithium-ion batteries — about half the available charging cycles.

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An overview of the benefits of removing cobalt from batteries. | Video: CNBC

Cobalt-Free Lithium-Ion Batteries

How Do They Work?

These batteries work like lithium-ion batteries, but they don’t contain cobalt, which is typically used to stabilize the cathode in a lithium-ion battery.

 

How Will They Be Used?

These batteries could be used in any device powered by a lithium-ion battery, but much of the focus is on developing cobalt-free batteries for electric vehicles. Currently being used by Tesla in some electric vehicle models, lithium iron phosphate, a common alternative to cobalt, could soon be used by Ford and Volkswagen. Nickel, too, is being used, but nickel doesn’t come without its own drawbacks — namely risk of fire.

 

Pros and Cons of Cobalt-Free Lithium-Ion Batteries

The main advantage of cobalt-free batteries is that they don’t contain cobalt. Cobalt is incredibly expensive, and the mining of it is associated with human rights abuses. The United States Department of Energy is hoping to end the use of cobalt in lithium batteries by 2030.

But there’s a reason cobalt is used — mainly around efficiency.

“There is already a viable cobalt-free battery and that is lithium iron phosphate or LFP,” Sam Adham, a senior powertrain research analyst at LMC Automotive told CNBC in 2021. “But the main downside of LFP is low energy density and therefore driving range.”

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A look at how sodium-ion batteries can be an alternative to lithium-ion batteries. | Video: DW Planet A

Sodium-Ion Batteries

How Do They Work?

These batteries are similar to lithium-ion batteries, but instead use saltwater as an electrolyte.

 

How Will They Be Used?

These batteries are believed to be suitable for energy storage.

 

Pros and Cons of Sodium-Ion Batteries

Despite low energy density — sodium-ion batteries are only able to store approximately two-thirds the amount of energy a lithium-ion battery of the same size can hold — it’s much more affordable and very safe thanks to low risk of fire. It also performs better at lower temperatures than lithium-ion batteries and is much easier to recycle given the materials used in their production, but they are too inefficient for use in electric vehicles.

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Exploring the use of iron-air batteries as a form of energy storage. | Video: Undecided with Matt Ferrell

Iron-Air Batteries

How Do They Work?

According to Popular Mechanics, iron-air batteries work by oxidizing iron — using air to turn iron into rust — to produce energy. During the battery’s charging process, the cells are transformed back to iron through reverse oxidation.

 

How Will They Be Used?

Iron-air batteries are great for energy storage, providing up to 25 times more storage hours than lithium-ion batteries, according to Scientific American. Form Energy, an energy storage company, is gearing up to manufacture iron-air batteries, aiming to begin production at its plant in West Virginia in 2024, as well as a future facility located in Minnesota.

 

Pros and Cons of Iron-Air Batteries

These batteries are very affordable, given the abundance of iron and air in the world. They’re affordable, too, up to 10 times cheaper, according to Popular Mechanics, and last up to 17 times longer. 

The only drawbacks are their large size — they’re about as big as a washer-dryer combo, according to Popular Mechanics — and slow recharge time due to the slow oxidation process.

 

An overview of zinc-based batteries and how they can be used for energy storage. | Video: Undecided with Matt Ferrell

Zinc-Based Batteries

How Do They Work?

Zinc-based batteries work much like lithium-ion batteries with zinc ions flowing from the battery’s anode to cathode. This class of new battery technology includes zinc-bromine, zinc-manganese dioxide, zinc-air and zinc-ion batteries. 

 

How Will They Be Used?

Zinc-based batteries could be used for solar energy storage because of their low rate of self-discharge. According to PV Magazine, which reports on the solar industry, a zinc-air battery storage system will be used in a 32-building community in Queens, New York.

 

Pros and Cons of Zinc-Based Batteries

These batteries are typically capable of storing an abundance of energy. Additionally, the materials used in their production are affordable, non-toxic and readily available, according to PV Magazine.

But researchers are still working to solve some technical problems related to these batteries, namely the potential for them to short circuit, before they can be used more widely in greater use cases.

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