Health Tech

Batteries All Around


Quick question: how many batteries do you have? Chances are, the answer is way bigger than you think. They’re in your devices (e.g., smartphones, tablets, laptops, ear buds), they’re throughout your house (e.g., clocks, smoke detectors), they’re in your car (even if you don’t have an EV), and they may even be in you. We usually only think about them when they need recharging, or when they catch fire. They can be an environmental nightmare if not recycled, and recycling lithium-ion batteries is still problematic.  

So I was intrigued to read about some efforts to rethink what a battery is.

Let’s start with some work done by Swedish tech company Sinonus, a spinout of Chalmers University of Technology and KTH Royal Institute of Technology. The company is all about carbon fiber; more specifically, integrating structural strength and storing energy.

It seeks to make things multipurpose: “Just think of your smartphone, today it seems farfetched to use a single purpose phone, camera and mp3 player when you can have them all in one. In the same way we can transform single purpose materials, such as structure materials and batteries, through our multipurpose carbon fiber composite solution.” 

Or, as TechRadar put it, “how the laptop could become the battery.”

Sinonus says its carbon fiber based composite “can provide structural strength and store energy, all in one. By doing so we can utilize the mass that is “already there” to store energy, creating an opportunity to reduce weight, volume and improve overall system performance.”

New Atlas raves:

Imagine an electric car that isn’t weighed down by a huge, kilowatt-hour-stuffed battery. It wouldn’t need as much power to drive it forward and could rely on a smaller motor, saving yet more weight. Or imagine an eVTOL that could take off without lifting a lithium-ion anchor that requires it to be back on the ground within an hour for charging. Or a windmill with blades that work as their own batteries, storing energy during low demand periods for distribution at peak hours.

CEO Markus Zetterström explains: “Storing electrical energy in carbon fiber may perhaps not become as efficient as traditional batteries, but since our carbon fiber solution also has a structural load-bearing capability, very large gains can be made at a system level.” That reduced efficiency may be a cause for concern, but, as Jeff Butts wrote in Tom’s Hardware: “After all, if your laptop is smaller and lighter while still giving the same battery life, it hardly matters that the material storing the energy isn’t as efficient as a LiON battery pack.”

It has already replaced AAA batteries in low-power lab tests, but still has some considerable way to go to achieve more power and to make the materials cost-effective. Still, it cites a Chambers study that suggested this approach could increase EV range by 70%, while eliminating volatile chemicals that create the landfill issues and the potential for fires. 

According to Recharge News, Sinonus is also looking to use the carbon fiber in wind turbine blades, so they could act as their storage device as well. It is also considering using its composite in the “internal fabric” of buildings.

Speaking of which, if you like the idea of your laptop chassis acting as its own battery, you should love this: how about your house being its own battery?

Work done at MIT, led by Dr. Damian Stefaniuk, has created a way to store power in a form of concrete made from cement, water, and something called carbon black. It technically forms a supercapacitor, not a battery, but it can store energy. BBC’s Tom Ough writes that supercapacitors are very efficient in storing energy, charge more rapidly than lithium-ion batteries, but also release their energy more rapidly, something that the team is working on.

The first time the team connected an LED to a piece of the concrete, it lit up. “At first I didn’t believe it,” said Dr. Stefaniuk. “I thought that I hadn’t disconnected the external power source, and that was why the LED was on. It was a wonderful day.”

Dr. Stefaniuk and his team describe roads that collect and store solar energy, charging EV vehicles as they drive on them. Or – and the folks at Sinonus should love this – as part of a building’s structure: “to have walls, or foundations, or columns, that are active not only in supporting a structure, but also in that energy is stored inside them.”

As Dr. Stefaniuk told BBC: “A simple example would be an off-grid house powered by solar panels: using solar energy directly during the day and the energy stored in, for example, the foundations during the night.”

The team still has a long way to go in terms of how much power the material can produce, and, whoops, the addition of the carbon black makes the concrete weaker, so there is still work to be done in fine-tuning the ideal mixture. It should also be noted that production of cement is not without its own environmental impact.

But, as Michael Short, head of the Centre for Sustainable Engineering at Teesside University, told BBC: “As the materials are also commonplace and the manufacture relatively straightforward, this gives a great indication that this approach should be investigated further and could potentially be a very useful part of the transition to a cleaner, more sustainable future.”

And if those two examples aren’t quite ready, the next wave for batteries may be sodium-ion, instead of lithium-ion, with the advantage that sodium is much more common than lithium. China already has a large scale battery storage system, and, in the U.S., Natron Energy has just launched its commercial scale operations. Colin Wessells, founder and co-CEO, Natron Energy, said: “The electrification of our economy is dependent on the development and production of new, innovative energy storage solutions. We at Natron are proud to deliver such a battery without the use of conflict minerals or materials with questionable environmental impacts.”


I love reducing our dependence on rare materials like lithium, replacing it with more common materials like carbon or sodium. But I especially like making our energy technology part of our everyday structures, much as the Internet-of-Things (IoT) has long promised about our computing. As Sinonus strives for, making single purpose solutions multipurpose.

As various people have said in various ways, the best technology should be invisible. 

Kim is a former emarketing exec at a major Blues plan, editor of the late & lamented, and now regular THCB contributor

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