A Battery Breakthrough Could End Lithium-Ion’s Reign
Potassium batteries are coming for the throne
Chances are, if you own a smartphone or laptop, much of your life revolves around a lithium-ion battery. It’s just as likely that you know about this battery’s downsides: It eventually stops holding a charge, lithium is scarce and mining it is horrible for the environment, and sometimes, it blows up. And yet, the vast majority of consumer electronics and clean energy storage devices rely on lithium-ion batteries because right now, there’s no better alternative.
Scientists are working hard to find other options. Last week, a paper published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences described a breakthrough in the effort to make a potassium-based battery. Potassium batteries are considered one of the best potential competitors to lithium-ion batteries because potassium is way more naturally abundant than lithium, and the batteries could perform comparably — once a few obstacles are addressed.
“The uneven distribution and scarcity of lithium in the Earth’s crust make relying on lithium-ion batteries as the sole source of energy storage highly impractical and uneconomical,” study co-author Nikhil Koratkar, a professor of mechanical engineering at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, tells OneZero. Previous potassium batteries didn’t perform as well as lithium-ion technology, he says, but his team has now figured out a way to build one that safely provides more juice.
First, a quick recap on how batteries work: They’re a self-contained chemistry reaction made up of two electrodes — a positive terminal (cathode) and negative terminal (anode) — with a substance called an electrolyte sandwiched between them. What we think of as “power” is a stream of electrons flowing out of the negative terminal to the positive side. Connecting a battery to a device and powering it on completes a circuit that allows this flow to happen.
The chemical makeup of the two electrodes is key. In a lithium-ion battery, the positive terminal is made from a lithium compound and is paired with a negative terminal made of graphite. Lithium is lightweight and especially good at freeing up its electrons for graphite to grab, which is why it performs so well. In a potassium…