IBM changes the energy storage game with cobalt-free battery
Tina Casey

The leaders of the nations of the world declined to go forth and conquer climate change during the COP25 talks in Madrid earlier this month. That leaves the business of saving the planet up to a hodgepodge of activists, inventors, NGOs, and gigantic corporations. In the latest development, IBM has just slipped word of new energy storage research that could help accelerate the renewable energy transition with a next-gen solution for electric vehicles and stationary batteries, too.

New Energy Storage Technology, Without The (Cough, Cough, Cobalt) Baggage

IBM provided CleanTechnica with an advance copy of the new energy storage announcement so we don’t have a link yet, but the company’s IBM Research branch will probably have it online by the time you eyeball this.

The idea is to clean up the energy storage supply chain by clearing out the clutter of certain heavy metals and other materials commonly used in today’s lithium-ion batteries. That would help reduce the environmental impacts of producing rechargeable electronic goods as well as electric vehicles and stationary energy storage systems. Aside from environmental concerns, human rights issues are also in play. Here’s IBM Research on that topic:

“Many battery materials, including heavy metals such as nickel and cobalt, pose tremendous environmental and humanitarian risks. Cobalt in particular, which is largely available in central Africa, has come under fire for careless and exploitative extraction practices.”

They’re not kidding around. Just yesterday, news broke that the organization International Rights Advocates has filed suit against Apple, Alphabet, Dell, Microsoft, and Tesla over child labor and other abuses in cobalt mines in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

The IBM Energy Storage Solution Is Kind Of Different

So, what is this new energy storage technology of which IBM speaks?

Well, for one thing, it’s mysterious. It does not contain cobalt (or, for that matter, nickel), but that’s about all we know. Here’s what IBM is giving out:

“Using three new and different proprietary materials, which have never before been recorded as being combined in a battery, our team at IBM Research has discovered a chemistry for a new battery which does not use heavy metals or other substances with sourcing concerns. The materials for this battery are able to be extracted from seawater, laying the groundwork for less invasive sourcing techniques than current material mining methods.”

Hmmm…energy storage materials extracted from seawater! Could have sworn we covered a similar topic a while back. Something having to do with lithium, maybe? Or sodium? The old memory machine seems to be on the fritz. If you can guess what they’re talking about, leave us a note in the comment thread.

Meanwhile, IBM is super confident that its new energy storage solution is an actual solution that could leap across the Valley of Death that separates research from the shelves of your local hardware store. Here’s IBM enthusing over the prospects:

“Just as promising as this new battery’s composition is its performance potential. In initial tests, it proved it can be optimized to surpass the capabilities of lithium-ion batteries in a number of individual categories including lower costs, faster charging time, higher power and energy density, strong energy efficiency and low flammability.”

CleanTechnica is following up with IBM to see if the company can drop a few more details, so stay tuned for more on that.

What About The Dendrites?

Yes, what about the dendrites? For those of you new to the topic, the dendrites are not a sub-population of the Star Trek oeuvre.  They are hairy nanostructures that form in lithium-ion batteries over time, thereby reducing their efficiency.

Researchers have been coming up with all sorts of ways to beat back the dendrites.

In the IBM battery, the combination of the cobalt-free (and nickel-free) cathode and a liquid electrolyte suppress the growth of dendrites. Aside from resolving the efficiency issue, the new combo also results in a battery that is less flammable.

Integrating safety into the energy storage materials is a significant step in lithium-ion battery design. Today’s lithium-ion batteries are safe when properly engineered for flammability, but safety systems can add weight, complexity, and expense. Designs like the new IBM battery provide for longer range and lower cost.

Other items of interest include:

Charging Time: So far the IBM research team has demonstrated that the battery can get to 80% of charge in less than five minutes, when configured for high power.

Very High-Power Density: The new battery design exceeds more than 10,000 W/L, “outperforming the most powerful lithium-ion batteries available.”

High Energy Density: This comes in at more than 800 Wh/L, which IBM describes as “comparable to the state-of-art lithium-ion battery.”

Lifecycle: IMB says that the new battery “can be designed for a long-life cycle, making it an option for smart power grid applications and new energy infrastructures where longevity and stability is key.”

To ice the cake, IBM calculates the efficiency of its new energy storage solution at more than 90%, calculated from the ratio of the energy to discharge the battery over the energy to charge the battery.

Onward & Upward For Energy Storage Are you excited?

Well, don’t hold your breath for that new IBM energy storage solution. It is not ready to hit the shelves of your local hardware store — yet.

Meanwhile, for more clues about the technology, check out Central Glass, Sidus, and Mercedes-Benz Research and Development North America.

Many other new energy storage technologies are also in the pipeline. The US Department of Energy is eyeballing four next-generation batteries that could become available within the next few years, just in time for millions of electric vehicles to hit the road.

Aside from enabling the zero-emission personal mobility revolution of the future, energy storage is the golden key that helps unlock the world’s renewable energy resources for zero emission electricity.

Here in the US, the Energy Department is already planning for a future grid in which output from wind and solar farms routinely exceeds demand at times, requiring a combination of energy storage and curtailment to balance things out.

The Energy Department is also looking at bulk energy storage technology that lasts much longer than today’s lithium-ion arrays. The idea is to engineer systems that could store enough energy to power up 50,000 homes for at least 10 hours, and potentially up to 100 hours or more, so keep an eye on that.