Breakthrough Batteries?


The more time you spend talking with smart people about the energy future, the more you hear about the holy grail: great batteries. To that end, a couple of recent developments in BatteryLand are encouraging news. The first battery of interest comes from MIT:

A radically new approach to the design of batteries, developed by researchers at MIT, could provide a lightweight and inexpensive alternative to existing batteries for electric vehicles and the power grid. The technology could even make “refueling” such batteries as quick and easy as pumping gas into a conventional car. The new battery relies on an innovative architecture called a semi-solid flow cell, in which solid particles are suspended in a carrier liquid and pumped through the system. In this design, the battery’s active components — the positive and negative electrodes, or cathodes and anodes — are composed of particles suspended in a liquid electrolyte. These two different suspensions are pumped through systems separated by a filter, such as a thin porous membrane.

The second, courtesy of GeekWire, is from Clarian Labs in Seattle:

Bill Gates and inventors connected to Nathan Myhrvold’s Intellectual Ventures made headlines two years ago with a patent application for an electromagnetic engine.

Now a Seattle-based company, Clarian Labs, says it has developed a compact, electromagnetic hybrid battery  based on a rotary piston that can generate twice as much power as the one proposed by the former Microsoft executives. It runs on carbon-neutral fuels including hydrogen, and could power equipment including robots, electric vehicles and home generators.

Clarian says it has been developing the technology in stealth mode for the the past two years. Its own patent application was made public last week (PDF). The battery was originally developed as a power source for the Department of Defense Humanoid Robot Program.

I have no idea whether either of these batteries will be game-changers, but it is hard to imagine that with so many smart and motivated people working on the battery problem, we won’t make huge progress in the long run.


The second is NOT a battery!

It is an internal combustion engine, that explodes fuel/air mix to create motion and generate electricity. You put in fuel and air and get out electricity/exhaust gases.

It is no more a battery than a Honda Generator is a battery.

It is simply a more compact packaging of Internal Combustion Engine generator.


Not only is it just a little IC engine, it's a little Wankel rotary. As someone commented elsewhere, somewhere there's a tiny Mazda up on blocks with the engine missing.

Eric M. Jones


There have been dozens of similar announcements in the last decade.

The odds are against this one too. But let's hope....


PeterScott is right.

It's interesting that the word "battery" does not appear anywhere in the patent application however the URL for the patent PDF includes the words rotary_piston_generator. Where did the idea that this is a battery come from?

And finally, it is a long way from the lab to volume production of an economical, reliable product. Further still for one employing radical new technology. How long did it take to get the LCD from the lab to an affordable flat screen monitor?

Adrian Meli

Awesome. Hadn't seen the MIT battery discussed before, but it seems with so many people attacking the issue we should have some good solutions soon. That said, people have thought that this was coming for years...


Batteries are NOT a source of energy. Hydrogen is NOT a source of energy. They are both ways to store energy. You still need to generate the energy used to charge the batteries or make the Hydrogen. Energy might come from coal, solar, natural gas, nuclear, wind, whatever.

The idea that Hydrogen is a carbon-neutral fuel source shows that whoever wrote the press release knows more about buzz words than the science behind the process.

These ideas might change the way energy is stored and carried around in cars. They won't magically reduce our reliance on fossil fuels.


How is hydrogen different from coal, wind, natural gas and "whatever"? They are just different ways of "storing" energy by your very definition. All of these store solar energy in one form or another.


Hydrogen is different because it can't be found in nature in any usable quantity. You can find things like coal, wind, natural gas, and solar and mine, extract, or harvest them. You can't go out and find much hydrogen. You have to make it from something else using energy.

90% of hydrogen today is generated from fossil fuels. A small amount is generated by hydrolysis (splitting water). That takes energy, which usually comes from burning fossil fuels.


electrolysis, not hydrolysis. sorry.

caleb b

Wouldn't it be great if all cars could run on gasoline, natural gas, or plug-in electricity?

If gasoline became expensive, people would buy more natural gas, or charge their cars at night. The competition between the three could help keep costs down for the average joe.

Yes, yes, we need viable bio-fuel blah, blah, helping environment, blah blah. We're working on it, but in the mean time, how about combining a few technologies we already have?

To dream a little dream....


But I love this quote, which could have been pulled right out of an Asimov novel:

"The battery was originally developed as a power source for the Department of Defense Humanoid Robot Program."

Ben D

You guys forget, for some reason Dubner is in love with Nathan Myhrvold.


What's not to love?

He generates money while actually producing nothing. He simply controls access to an infinite good. It must be some sort of economist fantasy.

Using the government to guarantee monopolies on ideas to "earn" profit? In this scenario, the glassmaker legislated the broken windows. And he doesn't even have to fix them.

Michael Duhaney

I hope battery technology evolves in another way - diminished toxicity. It seems that electric cars are such the rage these days. But UNlike gas combustion cars, they are not as recycleable (?sp). And what becomes of all those lithium ion (& other) batteries, which don't get re-used. WIll we need more Yucca Mountains to store these "spent" batteries.
One final note: do electrics car really help us. Most electricy is generated from coal burning electric plants today.


Wrong three times. Neither lithium-ion nor NiMH batteries are particularly toxic. They can easily be recycled: if there's little actual recycling going on yet, it's because most of the batteries are still working perfectly well, and will be for years yet.

For many of us (depending on where we live), a significant fraction of our grid power is non-fossil sourced. The fact that some fraction is coming from coal at present is something that can easily be changed: just build more nuclear/solar/wind/whatever, and all electric cars stop using coal-generated electricity, without having to do anything else. And of course it's more efficient to use electricity, even from coal, than to use a gas or diesel engine.

If it still bothers you that some of your electricity comes from coal, you're perfectly free to add solar panels to your roof, or put a wind turbine in your back yard, and eliminate your fossil fuel use entirely. Try that with an IC engine.



Great! On a related point, I'm always baffled by the endlessly expanding options for mobile phone technology. What I really want is a battery that lasts for ages! Get the simple things right.


Alta Devices has also made some kind of verified big efficiency breakthrough in solar cells as well: