Stanford University’s aluminium-ion battery is a breakthrough, but it’s not a big deal

A quick Google search for “battery breakthroughs” reveals a whole host of articles across the last few years, each one proclaiming a breakthrough capable of changing the way we live our lives. But, for all of these breakthroughs, almost none of them have gone on to change battery technology the way we want them to – and that’s to power a smartphone for more than a day.

Stanford University aluminium-ion battery breakthrough - charging phone

The latest battery breakthrough comes from Stanford University, where a team of researchers have developed a new aluminium-ion battery. Promising to deliver multiple improvements over lithium-ion batteries, Stanford’s battery’s biggest draw is its ability to reach a full charge in around a minute. It’s also incredibly durable, able to hold a greater number of charge/recharge cycles than a traditional lithium-ion battery, and there’s no risk of explosion.

Even though aluminium-ion battery technologies aren’t new, combining graphite with aluminium led to the accidental discovery of this vastly superior aluminium battery technology. It can survive 7,500 charges without losing performance, which is over 100 cycles more than standard aluminium-ion technologies. Comparatively, lithium-ion batteries only last around 1,000 cycles before they start to diminish.

The downside to all of this, however, is the incredibly low capacity of aluminium-ion batteries. They just can’t rival today’s lithium-ion batteries in terms of how much charge they can hold. There’s no way an aluminium-ion battery could deliver the battery life needed to run a smartphone; you’d be charging it up continually throughout the day.

“Our battery produces about half the voltage of a typical lithium battery,” said Stanford professor Hongjie Dai in a press release. “Improving the cathode material could eventually increase the voltage and energy density. Otherwise, our battery has everything else you’d dream that a battery should have: inexpensive electrodes, good safety, high-speed charging, flexibility and long cycle life. I see this as a new battery in its early days. It’s quite exciting.”

Dai is right, this is “quite exciting”, but will it actually be the future of battery technology?

Battery breakthroughs take time to trickle down into manufacturing, and with rapid advancements in current battery technology, these discoveries could easily be eclipsed. Earlier this year we heard that vacuum-cleaner company Dyson had invested $15 million into a solid-state battery company Sakti3, which is already making strides in the technology.

Apple may be using liquid electrolytes for its incredibly thin and light MacBook, in doing so it’s managed to create a laptop with impressive battery life for its size. If research into liquid-free polymer lithium-ion batteries makes strides, the risks associated with lithium-ion batteries will melt away.

MacBook polymer lithium-ion battery

We also know that the University of Manchester has invested heavily in graphene technologies. Graphene battery technology could be smaller, lighter and more durable than its lithium-ion counterparts, while also being larger in capacity.

So while this aluminium-ion battery may be a breakthrough, it seems like it will be no more than a stopgap. Lithium-ion technologies are advancing rapidly, and graphene research is also improving at breakneck pace.

Most tellingly of all, Tesla and SpaceX founder Elon Musk isn’t convinced by Stanford’s breakthrough. On Twitter he let his feelings be known – although it may be worth taking with a pinch of salt, due to his plans for revolutionising lithium-ion battery technology for his electric car brand.

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