Supersonic Electric Airplanes and Safer Portable Electronic Devices Due to Improvements in Battery Technologies?

K ey advances in the technologies pertaining to the development of batteries could one day lead to supersonic electric airplanes and safer portable electronic devices in the future — and they could occur faster than you might think.

Battery Design to Portend the Age of Supersonic Electric Airplanes?

Luke Workman believes that he has conjured a unique design for batteries which could lead to the development of supersonic electric airplanes which would be capable of traveling long distances for commercial use — similar to the role of Concorde for greater than 30 years with the exception that Concorde was not powered by electricity — and that existing battery chemistry and technology can be used.

“About 35 percent of the weight in the cell is current collection, sheets of aluminum and copper foil that are just there to get the energy in and out of the cell,” Workman explained, according to this article written by Loz Blain for New Atlas. “That’s a lot of weight that’s not active material. It’s a lot of weight a plane has to carry that’s not storing energy.”

Airplane wings as batteries

Source: Luke Workman.

The battery designed by Workman would weigh significantly less than the battery technology which is currently available; and it “handles heat insanely well — it just requires a gigantic, flat surface area. Like, say, the oversized wings of a supersonic plane” where the entire aluminum surface of the wing would be used as a current collector as part of a giant battery to transfer power from the ends of that battery sandwich out to the motor. The components of the battery could also purportedly help further strengthen the wings themselves.

A Safer, Faster, Smaller and Longer Lasting Lithium Battery?

Meanwhile, from SolidEnergy — a company which is comprised of a team of researchers of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who became entrepreneurs — comes the design of a lithium battery which not only will purportedly be safer to use; but will also last a significantly longer period of time on one charge than current technology is capable of doing

…and that technology could be available as early as sometime next year.

Lithium metal electrodes — which are the parts of the battery where energy enters, is stored and then exits — react with the electrolyte of the battery. Those reactions cause reduced performance at best and explosions at worst — as has happened with the recent case of Samsung Galaxy Note7 portable electronic devices — and those explosions especially occur in rechargeable batteries…

…but because lithium is significantly lighter and yet more reactive when compared to similar materials, lithium batteries are capable of storing substantially more energy while weighing less than comparable batteries of the same size — and the new battery technology developed by SolidEnergy has the potential to last twice as long as lithium batteries which employ current technology.

Lithium battery comparison chart

Ultra-thin metal anode can double energy density and achieve 1200 Wh/L and 400 Wh/kg, which is energy density and battery capacity in weight respectively. Source: SolidEnergy.

To reduce the risk of explosions of lithium batteries, one electrode is typically comprised of a lithium compound while the other electrode consists of carbon — but that translates to slightly less storage capacity in a battery of a somewhat larger size. The lithium battery is not flammable and not volatile — meaning that it can safely operate at elevated temperatures.

The team at SolidEnergy developed a design for batteries which uses pure lithium metal for significantly increased energy efficiency; while using a different type of electrolyte which does not react with the lithium.

Summary

The discussion pertaining to exploding lithium batteries reminded me of when the fleet of Boeing 787 “Dreamliner” airplanes suffered from lithium battery issues when it was first placed into service — such as when a battery fire occurred in January of 2013 at Logan International Airport in Boston, which prompted the Federal Aviation Administration to ground the entire fleet of Boeing 787 “Dreamliner” aircraft worldwide for months — and greater than $600 million dollars was spent before the worldwide fleet of Boeing 787 “Dreamliner” aircraft was permitted to fly again in April of 2013

…but problems still continued to plague the fleet of aircraft. For example, a maintenance crew at Narita Airport reportedly discovered white smoke and an unidentified liquid emanating from the main battery of a Boeing 787 “Dreamliner” aircraft in January of 2014 — supposedly two hours before it was to depart from Tokyo to Bangkok with 158 passengers.

Thankfully, those problems with lithium batteries have not seemed to plague the fleet of Boeing 787 “Dreamliner” airplanes lately — but a safer and faster battery which lasts longer and is more efficient would always be welcomed.

Supersonic flights with airplanes manufactured by Boom could occur in as soon as a few years — hoping to beat to the market similar offerings proposed by a partnership between Aerion Supersonic and Airbus Group; as well as proposed by a partnership between Lockheed Martin and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration of the United States, which has supposedly progressed one step closer to supersonic travel becoming a reality.

There is even a company which claims that it has plans for an airplane which can travel at up to approximately 12 times the speed of Concorde where it would be able to fly from New York to London in eleven minutes; New York to Dubai in 22 minutes; and New York to Sydney in 32 minutes…

…and this does not even include the assorted futuristic technologies about to which I referred in this article where you could travel from New York to Beijing in as few as two hours; or this article pertaining to possibly one day traveling from London to New York in approximately one hour; or this article where passengers can be transported between Toronto and Montréal in as few as 30 minutes with Hyperloop technology.

Fortunately, both battery designs can be manufactured using existing technology and infrastructure — which means that the development cycle of either battery should not last for years as with the aforementioned futuristic technologies; but rather be ready for use commercially in the near future — as well as leverage an open ecosystem…

…and that is potentially great news to which we can look forward.

Photograph ©2016 by Brian Cohen.

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