ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
On today's All Tech, two stories of invention.
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SHAPIRO: Lots of technological improvements depend on more advanced battery technology. Now researchers at the University of Texas say they've had a breakthrough. As KUT's Mose Buchele reports, their claims have sparked controversy.
MOSE BUCHELE, BYLINE: At the center of this debate is a towering figure in the world of science.
JOHN GOODENOUGH: Well, my name is John Bannister Goodenough. And my background is in physics and chemistry, and I teach material science.
BUCHELE: You might not know Goodenough, but you know his work. In 1980, he cracked the secret of the lithium-ion battery - the thing in cellphones, laptops, even electric cars. For a lot of people, that would probably be enough. But at 94 years old, he's still at it.
GOODENOUGH: All the young people that I had as postdocs are getting ready to retire (laughter).
BUCHELE: Also, he has an incredible laugh. Now Goodenough and his team say they've created a new battery that may store up to five times more power than current ones and, even better, charge and recharge in a matter of minutes and - this is important - not explode. The implications are huge.
GOODENOUGH: If we can really lower the price of these batteries, there's so much you can do with it.
BUCHELE: Store renewable energy to power homes.
GOODENOUGH: Electric boats, electric drones.
BUCHELE: Cheaper electric cars with longer range.
GOODENOUGH: You can name it. I mean there are just so many things, so it should make a big revolution.
BUCHELE: But how does it work?
What is this?
HELENA BRAGA: Oh, we are in the lab (laughter).
BUCHELE: This is where the work takes place.
BUCHELE: Helena Braga is the lead author in the research journal that announced the new technology.
There are beakers lined up here. We've got wires connected to different experiments going on in the wall. There are these huge glove boxes. They're, like, big cabinets that are sealed off so that nothing gets contaminated.
BRAGA: Here we should always control the oxygen and the amount of water that we have inside.
BUCHELE: That's important because batteries work by storing chemicals that react to create an electric charge. Now, here I'm way oversimplifying this research, but where most batteries use a liquid to allow a charge to flow between the positive and negative sides, Goodenough's team is using a solid, a lithium glass. In their paper, they say this glass, along with a new design, is what helps their battery perform so much better. But many others are skeptical of their results. Well, that's an understatement.
DAN STEINGART: If you could accomplish what this paper claims, it would rewrite the way we think about chemistry.
BUCHELE: Dan Steingart is a professor of mechanical engineering at Princeton. He says batteries are sealed, so it's hard to know what's really going on. And he doubts the team's interpretation of what's happening here. In fact, he says the chemical ingredients shouldn't be storing any power, what he calls anomalous capacity.
STEINGART: As revered and important as John Goodenough is, the mechanism described to account for the anomalous capacity appear to be in conflict with the first law of thermodynamics.
BUCHELE: If that's true, there must be something else to explain the results, and the promise of the battery is likely overstated, to which John Goodenough responds, well, with a laugh.
GOODENOUGH: (Laughter) We haven't violated any laws of thermodynamics, and we have tested it. And we have proven we can get three volts over 500 cycles.
BUCHELE: He says companies have already shown interest in commercializing the invention even while others in the world of science try to reconcile it with the very laws of physics. For NPR News, I'm Mose Buchele in Austin.
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