Charging Ahead in Energy Storage

Batteries have captured many recent positive headlines for electric vehicle (EV) and stationary grid storage applications. From grid storage costs projected to fall 50 percent over the next 5 years, to the grid market growing nearly 10x over the same period, to new EV models from Tesla and GM, there are many reasons to be optimistic about the prospects for batteries. At the same time, however, batteries have experienced highly negative media coverage for more established consumer applications. Samsung’s Galaxy Note 7 and hoverboards stand out as two recent examples of problems with lithium-based batteries catching on fire, and demonstrate some of the technical problems that have yet to be solved.

In addition to fire risk, three other areas with major potential for improvement in battery technology are: charging speed, cycle life, and depth of discharge (DoD). The importance of solving each area differs across consumer, EV, and grid applications. For example, charging speed is a major focus area for smartphone and EV applications, but of lesser concern for grid storage applications. The commonality among all four challenges and applications is that they can be addressed through improvements in battery management technology, specifically through charging technologies. Lithium-ion batteries, particularly in tightly packed formations, do not have tolerance for variations in charging profiles. Improper charging can lead to lithium plating and dendrite formation, or “swelling,” accelerating battery degradation and increasing risk of battery fires through short circuits or cell punctures. Small variations in cells due to differences in manufacturing can also lead to similar problems. In this manner, fast charging, maximizing cycle life, enabling greater depths of discharge, and managing thermal safety risks are all interrelated, and the benefits gained in one metric must be worth any tradeoffs in others.

Advances in Smartphone Charging… and Beyond

Qnovo’s QNS adaptive charging software is now featured in Sony’s Xperia X smart phones. Source: Smart2.0

Charging technology has been a key focus for smartphone manufacturers. Google’s just-released Pixel lists 7 hours of battery life on 15 minutes of charge as a key feature. Samsung has highlighted the Galaxy S7 Edge’s fast-charging capabilities in television commercials, advertising that it can reach a 50 percent charge in 30 minutes. Sony has incorporated startup Qnovo’s QNS adaptive charging software for its 2016 Xperia X smartphone line, with claims that 10 minutes of charge can provide 5.5 hours of battery life and that the battery lifespan will be twice as long as competitors. Nucleus Scientific, a stealth-mode startup out of MIT, demonstrated a product last year that could charge a standard smartphone battery in as little as 3 minutes.

Smartphones are certainly not the only application in which charging technology is taking strides forward. Nucleus Scientific has produced a system for an electric scooter battery and plans to scale to EV applications. Qnovo’s technology is also incorporated into Intel’s 2-in-1 laptops, but Constellation Technology Ventures’ participation in Qnovo’s Series B round may signal a larger leap into stationary grid applications. Looking forward, our coverage will monitor topics such as:

  • How and whether these technological advances transfer to EV and grid markets
  • The impact of charging and monitoring technologies on services in storage, including insurance and operations
  • Variations in partnership and investment models that arise across markets

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