Story at a glance

  • Today’s lithium-ion batteries are crucial for many devices like cellphones and electric cars, but they have some limitations and drawbacks.
  • Scientists at IBM are searching for a new alternative by harvesting components from seawater.
  • A prototype is performing well in the lab and industrial applications.
  • The technology sounds promising, though more information is needed, says an outside expert.

IBM is developing what it's calling a more environmentally friendly battery that uses unique materials derived from seawater.

Using three new proprietary materials extracted from seawater —that haven’t been previously used in a battery — the company is hoping to develop more sustainable batteries that perform better.

Right now, heavy metals like cobalt and nickel are commonly used in the design of current battery technologies, such as the rechargeable lithium-ion batteries in your smartphone, laptop or electric vehicle.

However, many of these battery materials, especially cobalt, which is largely mined in central Africa, have come under fire for posing “tremendous environmental and humanitarian risks.”

“This new research could help eliminate the need for heavy metals in battery production and transform the long-term sustainability of many elements of our energy infrastructure,” according to IBM.

Besides the battery composition, IBM also touts the performance potential, claiming initial tests indicate “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.”

Daeha Joung, who specializes in experimental biophysics and nanoscience at Virginia Commonwealth University, says IBM’s announcement holds promise. “Unfortunately, the actual design concept and new materials have not been disclosed, presumably due to intellectual property issues,” says Joung. However, “if the claim is valid, what is impressive about it is that they have overcome most of all the current limitations of lithium-ion battery technologies.”

“It could be a pretty significant advancement,” says Joung. Extracting materials from seawater could decrease production costs and increase sustainability, Joung adds.

The potential new battery is an example of one of the many innovative solutions expected to emerge in the near future, especially with the January 2020 announcement by U.S. Energy Secretary Dan Brouillette about the launch of the Energy Storage Grand Challenge.

The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) describes this as “a comprehensive program to accelerate the development, commercialization, and utilization of next-generation energy storage technologies and sustain American global leadership in energy storage.”

According to the DOE in a press release, “The vision for the Energy Storage Grand Challenge is to create and sustain global leadership in energy storage utilization and exports, with a secure domestic manufacturing supply chain that is independent of foreign sources of critical materials, by 2030.”

Published on Jan 13, 2020