DENDRITES! You’re surrounded!

DENDRITES! You’re surrounded!

It’s likely happened to just about everyone, but now it’s happening to me. So it’s extra important.  My cell phone’s lithium-ion battery is dying quickly and I am jumping from charging station to charging station.  I estimate the age of the battery to be about 3 years old, and I guess that’s a good long life.  But what if a simple lack of yet to be discovered facts about batteries is actually preventing manufacturers from creating a battery that is stronger and lasts longer?  New knowledge of the chemistry of creating electricity, new combinations of the materials in batteries and methods of battery production could not only revolutionize the consumer experience, its impact on capital and industrial markets could change the world, not to mention our environment.

Market Changing Partnerships

Shockingly, I actually knew why my battery was dying. It was dendrites and I’ll explain more about them in a minute.  The only reason I knew how prevalent dendrites are to me – and to everyone else – was because I recently attended a presentation given at a meeting that involved five universities.  All of which, were members of the High Performance Computing New York (HPC-NY) Consortium and a battery company.  By taking advantage of the available computing power and engineering expertise the Consortium offers, the battery company is looking to change the game in the energy storage industry.

The challenge facing the battery company is similar to those vexing many businesses that require higher levels of science to thrive. Traditionally, to advance in the market, an energy company would have been forced to make massive and speculative investments in technology, materials, and people that may or may not yield results.  Instead, this particular battery company decided to partner with scientists who are members of the HPC-NY Consortium to temporarily use incredible levels of processing power and short-term expertise.

What About Those Dendrites?

Dendrites are to batteries what stalactites and stalagmites are to caves. The faster the cave floods and ebbs, the larger the mineral deposits grow, and the faster the cave closes.  Similarly, the faster you charge and drain a battery, the faster molecules stack-up on opposite sides of the metal until they eventually touch – or better said – short out.  Once this occurs, the battery is dead.

The Future of Dendrites

Of course if I had my way, dendrites would have no future. And if Greg Satell of Forbes magazine is correct (and I think he is), energy storage is the most important technology in the world.  In his article, he mentions that the intercalation that causes the battery to degrade is the biggest challenge to advancing the capability to store more energy longer.  He also notes that there is only so much lithium you can mine and then fit into a battery.  In other words, a limit has been reached, so the game must change.

It’s unlikely that any person, government, or corporation can bring together enough people, resources, and funding to perform the countless (and very expensive) experiments that require considerable amounts of lithium and other materials to test thousands of combinations of chemistries and components in the hope that they may hit a more powerful or sustainable solution. The answer to this dilemma is to use supercomputer-generated visualizations to build, activate, and study different lithium-like metals and acids – AND to run actual experiments based on the known chemistry of electrical currents.

The battery company that attended the HPC-NY Consortium meeting did just this. By virtually setting off chemical reactions and changing the base components to modify the growth rate and saturation of dendrites, the company was able to determine which combinations of chemistries were successful.  The model proved true, and the innovations that fell out of these multiple experiments were amazing.

After all of this, I have peace of mind that the dendrites growing on every battery that supports my electronic life may become a lesser concern in the future. As for the battery company, they can move forward with their next iteration without having to make substantial capital investments or hire long-term experts.  Additionally, the world can breathe a sigh of relief that as batteries and energy storage devices become more efficient, there will be less mining for metal, less use of acids and salts, and less use of non-renewable energy.

This project brought together the EOS Company and the faculty, students, and professionals in the High Performance Computing New York Consortium. It resulted in a low-cost, high-value innovation that advanced the company immeasurably.  For more information on EOS, see http://www.eosenergystorage.com/.  For more information on HPC-NY, see https://hpc-ny.org/.

Blog contributor:  Bill Thirsk