Rethinking batteries before we have to rethink our world
What’s happening today
As the world population grows and developing nations continue to raise their living standards, world energy use is expected to soar 50 percent by 2050, with much of that driven by the industrial and transportation sectors1.
Only through fuller use of non-carbon renewable energy such as solar, wind and hydropower can we meet that demand without pumping more climate-damaging CO2 into the atmosphere.
Many renewable energy sources are intermittent. Sunshine for solar power is, of course, only available during the day. Wind power is dependent on the weather. Therefore, reliable use of renewable energy requires the ability to store it. Right now, the world can store only about three percent of the electricity produced globally2. The growth of the electric vehicle market is also dependent on the availability of cheaper, safer, and more powerful batteries. In short, the world needs better batteries.
Solutions for the future
The lithium-ion (Li-ion) battery, lightweight and efficient, is still king when it comes to energy storage. But Li-ion batteries require the use of cobalt and nickel, which pose environmental and health concerns in their mining and production, are in dwindling supply and can be harmful to the environment if the batteries are not disposed of properly. What’s more, cobalt is mainly found in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where human rights groups have long raised concerns of illegal mining, corrupt practices and child labor.
Researchers are now developing Li-ion prototypes with relatively low cobalt content and non-flammable liquid or solid-state electrolytes to improve the safety of Li-ion batteries. But looking beyond the Li-ion battery, IBM is betting that AI and quantum computing can help researchers find new solutions to the energy storage problem.
Developments at IBM Research
Using the accelerated discovery cycle, scientists will improve the battery’s performance by finding even safer and more efficient materials. Earlier this year, IBM researchers developed a cobalt-and nickel-free battery that relies on an iodine-based cathode. The researchers showed that the battery could have higher power density, lower flammability and much faster charging times than conventional Li-ion batteries.
The use of quantum computing will become of pivotal importance to improve next-generation technologies, like lithium sulphur batteries, that could be more powerful, longer lasting and cheaper than Li-ion. Next, AI could be aimed at predicting the correct molecular candidates, allowing researchers to lab-test the best options.
Over the next five years, accelerated discovery of new materials—made possible by AI and quantum computing—will result in better batteries to meet rising global demand for electricity without further raising the temperature of the Earth.