123: Oops! A Battery! Lithium Sulfur Accidental Breakthrough

Matt and Sean discuss accidental discoveries that push technology forward, like Drexel University and their lithium sulfur battery breakthrough.

Watch the Undecided with Matt Ferrell episode, “Why This Accidental Battery Breakthrough Matters”: https://youtu.be/tHRoefpqMaM?list=PLnTSM-ORSgi7UWp64ZlOKUPNXePMTdU4d

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Hey everybody. Today’s episode of still to be determined. We’re gonna talk about when your accidents are your best feature. That’s right. We’re talking about those oopsies that make you say, Hey, as usual, I’m Sean ferrell I’m a writer I write some sci-fi I write some stuff for kids. I’m also very curious about technology and what it does to us.

And luckily for me, my brother. Is Matt of undecided with Matt Farrell. that’s him chorteling in the background. Yep. And of course, we’re gonna be talking about Matt’s most recent episode. Why this accidental battery breakthrough matters. This is from June 14th, 2022, Matt, how you doing today?

I’m doing pretty well.

Good weekend. How about you

off to a nice start? It is windy enough to blow Dorothy to Oz right now. So, uh, my, my plans for the day, which include going out and about and meeting up some friends. I’m hoping that I don’t regret stepping outside. It’s , it’s a beautiful sunny day here in New York, but the wind is nonstop and it has that kind of here comes the pollen here comes the dust.

Yep. That kind of attitude.

Your, your eyes will seal shut. Yes. .

So as is mentioned at the. Title of this episode, why this accidental battery breakthrough matters. This is a discussion around battery technology that was not intended by the researchers. You wanna recap a little bit what the researchers were looking for?

What were they doing when they stumbled

upon this breakthrough? Okay. I’ll try to make this as short as possible, but essentially lithium sulfur is an alternative material to use for batteries. The big promise is you get higher energy D. It’s gonna be lighter weight. It’s gonna have a very in theory, long lifespan, but the problem with it is the way that it works.

Now, when the sulfur is basically shutting the shuttling, those ions back and forth, it creates basically a barrier on one side of the battery that just cakes it mm-hmm . And it basically will, in some cases, kill the battery. After it’s first charge, discharge cycle. Other times it might only last a hundred cycles before it’s basically tapped out.

So scientists have been trying to find ways to avoid that plating issue. and one of the things they’ve been doing is creating it’s called a matrix host. So they create basically like imagine a using graphite in a specific formation that can kinda help that plating issue from happening. This research team was trying to play around with a matrix host that could alleviate the plating issue.

Mm-hmm but what they ended up doing is when they ended up applying the, the new matrix host surface, the way they did it, it CR it didn. Infuse into the anode, the way they thought it was going to, it ended up kind of coding it in the way it coded it. it created a kind of sulfur. They didn’t know that they could make or how to make it.

It was an accidental creation of this type of sulfur, right? And this sulfur doesn’t suffer, suffer from this plating issue. It had, you know, thousands of cycles without any DEC, really any noticeable degradation. It looks like it’s solved the lithium sulfur problem with batteries. Mm-hmm . So it’s like if this, if this turns out to work through other researchers trying to replicate this and trying to bring it to production scale, this is going to have a meaningful impact on using sulfur as a potential future for battery storage technologies.

And it’s dramatically better than what we have today. Like it’s dramatically better. When I saw this report, it got me super excited because it was like lithium sulfur has basically been a non-starter because of this plating issue that they have. And the fact that this was an oops, uh, this can’t be right.

They tested it again. Right. They tested it again and they did it like a hundred times to make sure that they hadn’t screwed anything up and they were able to replicate it again and again, and again. And that’s when they realized this is a real thing that we have now. So it’s like, right. They they’ve kind of cracked the code right.

For, for sulfur. So it was a form

of sulfur that they knew of, but it was a, the problem was manufacturing. It was impossible as far as they knew and, or extremely expensive to a degree that it would be impossible to, to in a, in a

affordable. It’s complicated, it’s it? They knew how like scientists know how to make this material.

Mm-hmm that wasn’t the problem. But it was like this, this material at basically room temperature. There’s a whole bunch of like scenarios around just the physical nature of it. Right. At creating it the way they did. They didn’t know they could do it this way. Right. Because they always thought they thought.

It has to be high temperatures and it has to be X, Y, and Z, and it’s not gonna really be a viable solution. And it was like, oops, we actually created a stable form of the sulfur that we didn’t think was possible at room temperature, what’s going on here. And they kept trying to replicate it. And that’s, that’s basically the accident, the oopsie, right?

The, the Viagra moment for lithium sulfur. Yes.

And evoking Viagra in that moment, it, it creates an image of a room full of scientists that you really don’t wanna hold onto for too long . So this team, and it was led by the woman that you interviewed. She was the lead. Dr. She was the lead doctor.

Viv hop.

Yeah. Dr. Haw Cora from Drexel university.

Right. So you read about this and then how did you get in contact with her? What was that process?

Uh, I reached out to the, uh, basically public relations department of Drexel, as well as the department that she’s in. Mm-hmm to see if I could get in touch with somebody and they got back to me and they set up the, uh, the interview.

So I could actually talk to her, chat to her about with her about it and get more details. And mm-hmm, kind of tease some information out that I can put into the video. Right. Did you

get any information about how long this research has been going on or how large her team is

there’s? Well, if you look at the papers, there’s like a dozen people on the paper.

I didn’t get to details how large the team is, but there was a lot of people that worked on this, a lot of like students and, you know, PhD students and her and other people. So it’s like this wasn’t just a, she figured it out. It was the entire team figured it out. Yeah. So yeah, in years it took, they’ve been working on this for the past few years.

So this is not a, yeah, it did

six months. It doesn’t seem like it doesn’t seem like the sort of thing where in class one day she was like, why don’t we try doing this? And then no, you know, three weeks later, it’s like, I think we made sulf. Yes, that’s stable at a room temperature that this model of sulfur shouldn’t be stable at that that in and of itself is the part that really made the exclamation mark pop out of my head.

The fact that this is a formulation of sulfur that typically at room temperature is supposed to. Do what combust melt turn into a liquid, like whatever it’s supposed to do, it’s not supposed to be stable enough to do what they have it doing. And I think that that’s remarkable. It’s it is remarkable. It’s a reminder of how strangely delicate our world and the chemistry of our world is that we have, it’s also these formulations of different things that we take it for.

Granted that a thing is a. Sulfur is sulfur oxygen to oxygen, but there are different ways that these things can combine to create stable or unstable elements. And, and it’s remarkable. It’s a good reminder of that, that, that we live in more, in a more interesting environment that we give ourselves credit for.

I mean, this is why I’m, my videos tend to be a little more on the optimistic side. I’m a glass half full kind of guy when it comes to climate change and technology and how we can apply all this stuff. Yeah, because of this is a prime example of like, we don’t know. What we don’t know until suddenly we just know it.

It’s like, it’s like, yeah, you’re gonna have to experiment. And through the failures, you learn and through the successes you learn, and it’s like, one of these, they were trying to do this and they actually failed at doing that thing. Right. But they ended up accidentally discovering this other thing, which just trumps what they were actually trying to do.

So it’s it’s this happens all the time. Yeah. So anybody that says, oh, you know, solar will never work or will never have batteries that will be able to do X, Y, or Z. It. Just, just wait a little bit. Cause there’s stuff like this happening all the time, so we just have to be patient.

Yeah. If you do any reading, uh, about the history of the development of theoretical physics, it’s full of stories like that.

It’s remarkable. Yeah. And the stories of researchers basically running into a wall of their ability to explain. And when they hit that wall, some of the discoveries that have been discovered in that way have been things like black holes and dark matter where mm-hmm , they’re just, we don’t have any way of explaining this unless there’s a thing like this out there, and then other scientists saying, well, that doesn’t make any sense.

You don’t have any math, you don’t have any proof. There’s nothing to explain that. Like, yeah, I know, but this is the only explanation. And then 20, 30, 40 years go by and scientists are like, oh yeah, black holes. They’re a thing. Yep. Dark matter. Yeah. It’s out there. We just don’t know what it is yet. It’s

black holes.

We now have pictures of what we have pictures of them. Now you wanna see one? Here’s what it looked like. It’s . Yeah.

So this also this, uh, video of yours, and I’m not gonna try and like toot your horn for you, but it’s been rather successful. It’s. At this point, over 700,000 views. So I think that the, the idea that there’s this accidental progress is really hooking onto people and, and is mm-hmm and is getting attention.

And I think that’s fantastic. And there’s been a lot of comments on the video and among them that stood out for me were ones like this from nine to nine. I know you mentioned it a little bit, but there should have been a bigger focus on just how much lighter these batteries will be compared to lithium ion.

They are in the order of one third, the weight of existing batteries. That is the reason the drone and aerospace industry is what they’re aiming at. Also, lithium will largely be a solve problem. In the next five years, the salt and sea production of lithium is coming online. They will literally have 1.5 times the amount of lithium on the market over the next 10 years.

I am interested in your thoughts on, there are multiple layers to this comment that are worth revisiting first. Let’s just hit the weight issue. The description of these being lighter. Does that mean that we see a future where our phones weighs less or our laptops don’t have quite the weight that they do.

Now, if this type of battery is able to be introduced

it, it really comes down to whatever the design. Goals are so like, imagine an EV with the same exact range it has today, but with a much smaller battery, or you could have a car, an EV that weighs the exact same amount it does today, but can go a thousand miles versus 300.

Right. So it really comes down to what’s the use case. Do you want a phone that weighs the same amount and you charge it every three or four days mm-hmm or would charging every day is not a big deal, but now you can make it even thinner and later, right. So it’s like, it really kind depends on what the use case.

But it opens up a whole host of possibilities for what we can do. And on top of which they last longer, which is the part that like with the Drexel team came up with will last longer. So I know about you and everybody else it’s like with my phone, you know, you feel the, the pain of like, after you’ve been using it for a couple years, it doesn’t quite all is charge all day anymore.

That’s suddenly you’re having to charge it like in the afternoon. So it’s like imagine a phone that goes for four, five years before you start to feel that. So it’s like, that’s, that’s the benefits, it’s all around the user experience. So it depends on what you wanna design for

and the discussion around lithium, the Salton sea production.

Do you know about that? Do you wanna talk a little bit about what that

is for the lithium? Yes. There are lithium production is very in, it’s a long process. I’ve done videos on this before, but it’s like, you basically are drilling into salt flats and, and bringing up water. That’s basically. And then you basically put it in these giant, huge ponds that then have to basically evaporate and then you take the leftover and you put it into a different pond and then it evaporates down further and you put it into a different pond and it can take no joke, like a year for the water to go for this Brian to go from something where it’s a liquid down to the lithium salts that get used in batteries.

Well, there’s companies like energy X, which they’re not the only ones doing this, but there are companies that have a process where it’s literally like, you can just take the brain, pump it through the system and it uses. And nanotechnology it’s MOFs to filter this stuff. You can target target specific molecule shapes and so that you can filter out the lithium in a fraction of the time.

So it’s faster, it’s cheaper. And these kind of things you can bring online around the world and more locations. So yeah, we are, we’re gonna be ramping up our lithium production and, and being able to filter salts and desalination and all that kind of stuff in, in rapid. Rapid order. I bet. In the next five to 10 years, it’s gonna look radically different from where we are today.

Just based on what we’re able to do.

Does that mean a leveling of costs for consumers or does that mean that the difference it’s different for the producer, but it’s not gonna be different for the consumer? We won’t necessarily notice anything. I

don’t think you and I will notice something as a consumer.

I hesitate to say, yeah, it’s gonna make everything cheaper. It’s like, nah, It’s like when Tesla touts their brand new 46 80 cells and how it’s gonna be, you know, 30% cheaper to produce. It’s like, yeah, that’s not gonna make their cars 30% cheaper. It’s gonna make it 3% cheaper for Tesla, right. To make that battery.

Right. But they may still charge the same amount for the car. Right. So it’s like, I don’t know if it’s gonna really trickle down to consumers, but it’s still important because if a, if a company can increase their profit margins and can make it a profitable scenario, that means more companies will want to get in on this.

There’ll be more interest, more people will try to profit on it. That brings more things to market, which helps to drop down the costs. Right. For us. So I don’t wanna say trickle down economics works, but it’s like, there is a aspect to this of, for a free market. It’s important to have those costs, production costs go down.

Yeah. It, it will benefit us in some fashion. Yeah. I’m

reminded as you’re talking about all that, the first yeah. You and I are old enough to know yeah. What it was like the first time your family got a VCR. And how much of an impact that felt like, like this is technology that is remarkable. I can now record my TV shows and movies, and I can watch them as many times as I want whenever I want.

And that felt like a tremendous leap forward. And I don’t wanna say this is definitely the price tag, but I believe our first VCR that we had in our house might have been more than $350, maybe 400. I think it was 400 and, and it probably weighed about as much as I do now.

And ,

and I believe if I remember correctly, it lasted for several years.

And then that was introduced. I mean, you can correct me if I’m wrong. I think you were probably late elementary school, early junior high. I was probably late junior high, early high school at that point. Mm. Um, fast forward a few years, and then more than a few years, 15 years later, and VCRs were arguably on their way out.

And you could go pick one up for about 60 bucks at Walmart. It might last about nine months to a year before you’d have to replace it, but it was so cheap. It didn’t matter. And you could just replace them as you needed. Um, nothing about that was due to. Breakthrough in a new software battery. It was because they started just making it out of cheaper components.

So, and mass and mass production, right. They could churn them out fast.

They could churn them out fast. They made them out of cheaper materials. And there were more competitors on the market. You had your major producers at the beginning, they made all the breakthroughs. They developed the technology. And then as the lesser vans started producing theirs that were coming.

Out of markets that we weren’t even aware of as kids, you know, part, you know, the, the, the introduction of Chinese produced and other parts of Asia where they just started. Producing these things and flooding the us market and they got cheaper and cheaper, cheaper. So you were willing to go and buy something from a company that had a name that didn’t make any sense.

It looked like a random assortment of, of letters like, okay, this is fine. I’ll try this. Yeah. You know, no name brand. And it would be fine for, for nine months. I wonder if we’re on the cusp of that kind of cell. That kind, where it works well enough for a year, you replace it more often, but the production costs are cheaper.

And so more competitors step into the market. And then we end up with a flood of phones that cost you 250 as opposed to a thousand, but you’re willing to do it because in a year you just get the new version and it’s no big deal

we could be. We could be.

There was also this comment from Marin who wrote.

I really hope we get a spread of useful battery chemistry out of this. I hate how heavily overinvested we are becoming UN lithium to the point where grid storage, EVs and portable electronics are eating each other’s supply chains to the detriment of all, even having a straight up lesser option for things that don’t need the best would alleviate the pressure at least.

And I’m wondering about your thoughts about that. Do you see there being multiple tiers to this so that you have maybe. The home battery storage, which is using a less efficient version of battery storage, simply because, well, it’s not being used in quite the same way. It’s there for emergency backup as opposed to your laptop or your cell phone, where the charge and discharge is so repetitive.

You need that to be the most efficient, the, the, the newest and the best. Do you think that we’re headed toward that? Yes,

we’re kinda. Almost there already. You’re kind of seeing that happen a little bit in pockets, but yes, I don’t think there’s one, there’s not one battery. That’s gonna rule them all. And oftentimes in my comments, sometimes you see people saying along those lines of this is better.

Oh, this isn’t worth it. You shouldn’t, you should just use this. And it’s like, well, maybe for a specific use case. Yes, you’re right. But there’s gonna be a mix of things. A good example would be building a new house. The battery storage system I’m looking for from a new house is most likely not gonna be a Tesla power wall.

Even though I have one today, I love the Tesla power wall. It’s an incredible product, but I’m actually looking at batteries that are specifically made of a battery technology called LFP it’s lithium phosphates. So lithium iron battery, essentially. Mm-hmm the reason for that is it’s. It’s not quite as energy dense as what you’d get in a, in a Tesla, but it’s, it’s, it’s a little heavier.

It’s gonna take up a little more space. But it’s far better at chart charge discharge cycles and it will last longer. So it’s more appropriate for a home battery use because it’s incredibly safe. It’s incredibly long lasting. It’ll get me a little longer time out of it than, uh, nickel manganese cobalt battery would.

So it’s like I’m already kind of making that choice as a consumer of like, because I know it’s like, I want an LLP battery for my house because I think it’s gonna be a little longer. I talked to another company that’s out in California, uh, that is making one based on lithium titanate, which I was not familiar with at all.

Mm-hmm , it’s a battery technology that’s been used by the military space exploration and not very applying it to homes. And one of the reasons you probably don’t hear about it much it’s expensive, but it will last over 20 years. So it’s like, I’m gonna be putting solar panels in my house for the last 30 plus years.

And this company makes a battery that would last almost as long as the solar panels you pay for it. Cuz it’s, it’s like twice the cost of what a power wall would be, but you’re gonna get a battery that has incredible power capacity, uh, compared to a power wall and it will last you decades. And so it’s.

It’s all about use case. What do you need? What’s the best use for this specific situation? So, yeah, these newer, like lithium sulfur batteries, maybe we see it in phones, but we don’t see it in another technology. Because it makes most sense for that use case, right? The idea of one battery, that’s just gonna solve all of our problems.

That’s, that’s looking for a unicorn it’s never gonna happen. And it doesn’t make sense. So it’s like, I I’m in complete agreement with that, that

commenter, they’re not being one battery to rule them all as quite a charge to make. Oh, so listeners. Um, has this happened to you? We’ve this entire conversation has been spurred on by the fact that the researchers in their pursuit of one goal accidentally made a different discovery.

And I’m wondering, has this ever happened to you in your lives? Have you ever stepped backwards into success? You may not be a battery researcher, but I always enjoy the anecdotes of, yeah, I, I was on my way to a dinner and then accidentally bumped into the person who’d become my new spouse. Let us know in the comment.

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