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IRA FLATOW, host:

You're listening to SCIENCE FRIDAY on NPR News. You know, when you talk to people about building electric cars, they almost always mention one stumbling block, and of course that is the batteries they need.

When you ask a computer manufacturer about why they can't have a powerful, light laptop that will run unplugged for a full day, the answer again is the same. We need those batteries.

Well, this week a team of researchers at MIT reported in the journal Nature that they've created a material that could, in theory, help in providing the kinds of high-performance batteries needed for portable electronics and electric cars, though the researchers say there is still a considerable amount of engineering involved, a lot of work that needs to be done.

Well, joining me now is Gerd Ceder. He's professor of material science and engineering at MIT and one of the authors of that paper in Nature. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

Mr. GERD CEDER Professor of Material Science and Engineering, Massachusetts Institute of Technology): Hi, Ira, how are you?

FLATOW: How are you? Tell us about this research. What problem does it solve?

Mr. CEDER: Well, the problem it solves is that, you know, that batteries are thought of as things that are slow, that take a long time to charge, and what we worked on was finding material that would allow for batteries that could be charged extremely rapidly. So at least you solve one of the problems.

FLATOW: You mean in a matter of seconds?

Mr. CEDER: Yeah, the rates we show are like 10, 20 seconds kind of thing. Again, it's only one material, one material that can soak up lithium, essentially, this fast, and there's a lot left to be done, but we've shown that it works in the lab.

FLATOW: Tell us what that material is and how you made it.

Mr. CEDER: Well, it's actually - it turned out it was a known material. It was a lithium iron phosphate which was discovered at the University of Texas over 10 years ago but which was only moderately fast, hadn't really any special properties.

And about five years ago, we did a lot of computer modeling and theory on it and found that this thing should be really amazingly fast.

So what we really did is look at what made it slow, and it turned out that what it is, is it's really that when lithium moves from one electrode to the other, which is how you actually charge a battery, it has to sort of jump out of the electrolyte and get soaked into that particles and that step of getting into the particles was actually the slow one.

So we fixed that, and my God, we had a very high-rate material. But in…

FLATOW: Go ahead.

Mr. CEDER: It's something that was enabling something that was intrinsically there by doing some modification on the material.

FLATOW: So you modified the material to allow the electricity to move super fast through the battery.

Mr. CEDER: Yes, correct.

FLATOW: Wow, and so it can move, I guess, out of the battery super fast, also.

Mr. CEDER: Yes, yes, well, the - what happens is that the lithium can move inside the battery between the two electrodes very fast, and the electron current can compensate and go very fast out of the battery, so yeah, that's where we are.

FLATOW: So you get a big, fast pulse of electricity that can come out.

Mr. CEDER: Yeah. The power densities are very high. They're - you know, you can get much more power out of these batteries than you could get out of a wall socket, out of your house, and that could be the problem on the other end that you will need a lot of power to charge these in a short amount of time.

FLATOW: So if you had these in your car, and you wanted to charge them in a matter of seconds, could you do that?

Mr. CEDER: Well, maybe not quite a matter of seconds. I think that would require a lot of engineering, but you know, I think a matter of a minute, say, is realistic.

Again, you will need very high power supplies because in the end, you still have to put the same amount of energy in. So if you're going to put it in a minute rather than a few hours, you've got to put in really fast. You need a lot of power.

FLATOW: That's a giant cable or something.

Mr. CEDER: Yes. You need a giant cable. So that's why I said there's a lot of engineering left to do, but what we showed is that the proof of concept, you know, that this is possible, that batteries don't have to be slow.

And the other thing is on the accelerate, you know, on the discharge side, it's kind of nice. You could build batteries that could lead to very high acceleration in cars, for example.

FLATOW: 1-800-989-8255. We have a couple of questions. Let's go to the phones. Let's go to Bill(ph) in Matthews, North Carolina. Hi, Bill.

BILL (Caller): Good afternoon.

FLATOW: Hi there.

BILL: I have a question for your guest, please. My son is an electrical engineer and researcher and told me recently that there's a parallel line of thought.

They are engineering using nanotechnology. They're engineering capacitors, which would use nanotubes, thus increasing the surface of the metal foil, and they anticipate that within five years, they'll make capacitors the size of a suitcase that will run a car at speed for 10 to 12 hours and will recharge in a matter of minutes using nothing special, just plug into the grid anywhere.

So I'd like to see if your guest knows more about this and if he can explain it better than my son, who's technically way over my head.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: Okay, thanks for the call.

Mr. CEDER: Thanks for the question, Bill. Well you know, there are a few problems. Super capacitors are known. They have a very high rate. They are very low in energy density, typically, so you can get a high power boost out of them, but typically, they're - they energy they contain for the same amount of volume and mass is typically quite low and is still, you know, a factor of 10 to 100 below that of a typical battery.

So it would be hard to make a car with them that drives for very long. The other thing is that charging. Like I said, charging in a few seconds or in a minute, you know, you can't do that out of a power outlet in your home. You've only got about 1.5 or 2 kilowatts, whatever the device. You just don't have enough power coming. You will trip the circuit breakers in your home, basically.

FLATOW: Is there any way to combine your idea with the capacitor idea?

Mr. CEDER: Oh yeah. There are people who have thoughts about that, but my point was really that you may not need to, that if the material that we developed can be put into a battery, I think you can have your cake and eat it, too, have your high energy and high power.

FLATOW: Is it an exotic material or something that can be easily made?

Mr. CEDER: Oh yeah. Like I said, we started from a known material, and all we did was modifying it. So you know, we added a little salt and pepper. We actually modified the composition slightly, the processing, to give the material a sort of nanometer scale, amorphous coating, which gave it this very high rate capability.

So there's nothing particularly unusual about the material. It's an iron phosphate. It's cheap; it's abundant.

FLATOW: And it's on a nanotechnology scale.

Mr. CEDER: Oh yeah. This is - the actual particles in the battery are like 50 nanometer scale, so very small.

FLATOW: Right. So when do we see this in a product then?

Mr. CEDER: Ha, that's only the question.

FLATOW: You knew it was coming.

Mr. CEDER: I knew it was coming, yeah. That's always the, you know, that depends on the battery-makers. There's a lot of engineering to be done here, but because it's a known material, it could all go much faster. There are companies that already make products with this material, not the enhanced version. So in principle, they could just replace it and do some engineering for the high rate, and we could be off.

FLATOW: You mean, you would take the old lithium material and put this new lithium in it?

Mr. CEDER: Yeah, you could. That's the way you could do it, and then you'd have to make sure that, like, all the cabling and all the other stuff can do the high rate, and then you'd have a high-rate battery.

FLATOW: We have a question from Twitter here, and you can Twitter us at SciFri, @SciFri. Do batteries have like a Moore's Law to them? You know, like there's a limit or how fast they double in size, things like that?

Mr. CEDER: No, you know, unfortunately they don't have a Moore's Law to them, and part of the problem is that it's not like transistors in electronics.

In the end, to store charge, you know, you store in on stuff, really. We store it on atoms, and to store more charge in the end, you always need more atoms. So you know, we may make batteries in the end that are, in energy density, like a factor two, maybe four better, but they're never going to be 1,000 times better than what we have today.

FLATOW: Are you getting of this energy - stimulus money to work on…?

Mr. CEDER: We're working on it. We're working on it.

FLATOW: You're working on getting the money?

Mr. CEDER: Yeah. I think this helped.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: Maybe somebody's listening today. They say hey, somebody's got a good idea.

Mr. CEDER: Yeah, yeah. Well, we have a good team in Washington.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: That's good. 1-800-989-8255 is our number. We're talking with Gerd Ceder about his battery technology over there at - he's professor of material science and engineering at MIT. If you want to Twitter us, you can Twitter us @SciFri. That's the at sign, @scifri. Let's see - let's see if we can get a couple of questions in here, because we've raised a lot of people's interest. Alan in Grand Rapids. Hi, Alan.

ALAN (Caller): Hi. I was just kind of wondering with this rapid energy absorption, is there a chance that the battery could, like, I don't know, pull up or like melt or something, like - I don't know.

FLATOW: Yeah.

Mr. CEDER: No, yeah. No, that's a really good question because it's a concern with lithium ion batteries. And the good thing is that we started from a material that's quite a lot safer. It's a material, like I said, that some companies are now considering for power tools and cars because it's safer. The material is a lot safer than the stuff they put in your cell phone and laptop battery. So the risk of blowing up is a lot less.

FLATOW: So I would imagine that's then where we'll see this for us, right?

Mr. CEDER: Yeah, yeah.

FLATOW: With tools and laptops, because if you're just basically swapping out the old lithium ion stuff for your new kind of lithium, and it's just, you know, engineering cables maybe a little bit more heavy duty, that sort of thing?

Mr. CEDER: And a bigger charger, probably.

FLATOW: And a bigger…

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: Yeah, a bigger charger to pack more of that stuff.

Mr. CEDER: Yeah.

FLATOW: (Unintelligible) in there.

Mr. CEDER: I think particularly power tool is a really good example because, you know, now people in power tools have multiple batteries. But if you could actually have that battery and just recharge it in a minute, say, you know, you would just stand by and sip your cup of coffee basically while the battery recharges. Same with a cell phone, I would say.

FLATOW: Yeah. Let's go to Doug in Springfield, Illinois. Hi, Doug.

DOUG (Caller): Hi. I was curious about the battery's lifespan. And then I understand several batteries have a lot of ingredients that are very harmful to dispose of. I was wondering about those two things.

FLATOW: Good question.

Mr. CEDER: Yeah. Good question, yes. So lifespan, that's a good one. So, the lifespan of the material we put in - we have found no degradation at all, so that's good news. Now, if you put it all together in a battery - remember, we just developed the material, there's all kinds of things that can go wrong, so it's a little hard to predict. But traditionally, the batteries with this material have shown very, very long lifespan, which is actually another reason they're considered for automotive where you need, you know, thousands or maybe tens of thousands of cycles, which is a lot more than a cell phone battery gets.

And the other thing about harmful products - actually, lithium ion is better in that regard. It's a much cleaner battery technology than the old, say, nickel-cadmium batteries, if you remember those.

FLATOW: Right. Sure.

Mr. CEDER: Even nickel-metal hydrides(ph) are a lot better already. But lithium ion is actually remarkably non-toxic, I should say.

FLATOW: We have some questions from the Twitters coming in. A lot of the same questions. I'll just sum them up for you. One, could you make it lighter? Could the same battery - let's say you're a bicycle rider and you have a little light on your, you know, your bicycle and it's on your legs or whatever and you're peddling with it - can you make a lighter battery out of this?

Mr. CEDER: Well, you can, but unfortunately that's not the problem we solved - we did not solve the problem of energy density. So all we did was solve the problem of, you know, faster charging and discharging rates. But that's another problem we're actually working on in my lab, though, to make a higher energy-density battery, so then you could make them lighter.

FLATOW: Tell us what that is. What do you mean by higher-energy density?

Mr. CEDER: Well, like I said, you know, the way you store charge battery - in the end you'll store it on stuff - you know, electrons, you know, atoms, and you can only put so many of them on atoms.

FLATOW: Right.

Mr. CEDER: So if you want to have like more electrons and lithium charge, you sort of need to put more on a single atom; that's really what we're working on. Can we find mass and crystal structures and materials that can hold a lot more lithium and electrons for the same amount of weight?

FLATOW: So…

Mr. CEDER: It's a hard problem.

FLATOW: Yeah. So for one atom, can you put more electrons - lithium in there?

Mr. CEDER: Basically, yeah.

FLATOW: You don't need more atoms, you just have the same material.

Mr. CEDER: Yeah. What happens with all the materials if you move a lot more charge on them, they just become unstable.

FLATOW: Uh-huh.

Mr. CEDER: So we can make in the lab already materials with double or triple the energy density, but they're just not good enough. They're not stable for long enough to be put in a battery.

FLATOW: And what trick did you do? If you're not giving away any trade secrets, because no one listens anyhow. What trick did you…

Mr. CEDER: You're only nationwide, huh?

FLATOW: Internationally. But we won't talk about that.

Mr. CEDER: Yeah.

FLATOW: It's only a million and a half people listening, but go ahead.

Mr. CEDER: Well, you know, our - what we're doing is we're doing an extremely fast - we're actually doing a lot of computer modeling and -because computers is sort of, you know, very scalable, you can do a lot it. We're really looking at thousands and thousands of materials by computer. We jokingly refer to this as the materials genome, trying to see whether there are other good high energy density materials out there. And we found a few.

FLATOW: Yeah. Did you take lithium and just treat it in a different way, the same old stuff?

Mr. CEDER: Well, they all contain lithium, but it's all these compounds connecting lithium with other elements. They're like, you know, lithium iron phosphate or lithium manganese oxide; it's the other elements that determine how much of the lithium you can store in the electrode, so that's how we optimize these compounds.

FLATOW: You did that very well and keeping it quiet. Now, I'm talking with Gerd Ceder of MIT on SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News.

Do you have a patent on this, I imagine?

Mr. CEDER: Yes, of course.

FLATOW: Of course. You wouldn't be here talking.

Mr. CEDER: We wouldn't be at MIT. We wouldn't get tenure at MIT if we didn't learn how to do that.

(Soundbite of laugher)

FLATOW: Is that part of the courses that you have to take?

Mr. CEDER: I think so. I think so.

FLATOW: So where do you go? What are you waiting to - what's your next step? You're sitting here, you've get this great product, you've got other ideas; how do you move forward with this now? Wait for - you're waiting from someone to come in with money and say here's a potload of money, go make a product out of it?

Mr. CEDER: Well, you know, this specific invention, we've already licensed it to companies, so I want to move on to do science to make even better battery materials. That's what I'm going to focus on, but hopefully these companies will work in the commercialization.

FLATOW: And when you say better batteries, you're talking about the density side now?

Mr. CEDER: Yeah, exactly, energy density. I want to go for, you know, batteries that are twice or three times as light for the same amount of energy.

FLATOW: Are these American companies or foreign companies?

Mr. CEDER: One's foreign, one is American.

FLATOW: Because you know, we talk about jobs in America, and many times when you talk about, you know, the plug-in society, why should we start moving in that direction if we're going to be buying batteries from another country? Why not make them here?

Mr. CEDER: No, I think it's a great point. And actually if you look in the stimulus bill, there is money there for setting up battery assembly plants in the United States. And I think that's a great thing. You know, for way too long, we haven't had any significant lithium batter industry. It is all in Japan and now in China. And I think it's important especially with - the importance of batteries and transportation, I think it's especially important that there's a viable battery technology out here. It's also important for us scientists to be able to interact to with them.

FLATOW: And I would imagine then as someone who works on batteries, you see the future as being battery-centered.

Mr. CEDER: Oh, yes. I think, you know, the future of energy is electricity. And electricity means batteries. You know, there will be batteries everywhere.

FLATOW: Do you have your favorite way of making electricity?

Mr. CEDER: My favorite way of making electricity - hmm - sticking to electrodes in an orange. That's how I first ever did it. But no, not my favorite way. I think, you know, the world will ultimately go solar, is my guess.

FLATOW: Uh-huh. But there doesn't have to be one. Everybody could have their own way. They could have wind someplace.

Mr. CEDER: Yeah. Oh, exactly.

FLATOW: Solar one place.

Mr. CEDER: Wind in my opinion is already - it's happening already. Wind is not the technology of the future. It's here already.

FLATOW: So you're predicting that in how - go out on a limb for me. Tell me when I'll be able to walk into Radio Shack or someplace and get one of these for my laptop.

Mr. CEDER: Amazing batteries?

FLATOW: Yeah.

Mr. CEDER: How about four or five years?

FLATOW: Really, that long?

Mr. CEDER: Everything takes at least three, so I'm hedging my bet with another two years.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: I hope - well, I hope three years from now it's not another three. (Unintelligible) have you on.

Mr. CEDER: Technology takes longer than people think.

FLATOW: Yeah. Well, good luck to you.

Mr. CEDER: Okay. Thank you so much.

FLATOW: You've been great. Thanks for taking time to be with us today.

Mr. CEDER: Okay. Bye.

FLATOW: Gerd Ceder is a professor of material science and engineering at MIT, talking about new battery technology.

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