How batteries will change the way we use power in the future

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When fossil fuels are burned for power they release carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, which contributes to global warming and climate change. Australia is one of the world’s biggest contributors to carbon emissions, and scientists agree that if the Earth’s temperature continues to rise there will be devastating, irreversible effects on the environment.

This is why researchers around the world are looking at alternative energy sources such as solar power, wind power and batteries. Deakin University has partnered with the CSIRO to form the BatTRI-Hub, a technology and innovation space where research into the next generation of ‘beyond lithium-ion’ battery technologies will take place. These developments could contribute to a number of changes to how we use power, from powering electric vehicles to lighting whole towns. BatTRI-Hub’s director, Professor Maria Forsyth, is working with Associate Professor Patrick Howlett on ways that energy consumption can improve through new battery technology.

The end of petrol?

As we motor towards a world where electric cars are set to become standard, the improvement of battery power has become an essential. Tesla founder Elon Musk is working with lithium-ion batteries. Musk wants to produce 500,000 cars by 2018, which means refining the lithium-ion battery to make these batteries bigger, so they last longer. ‘They’re based around liquid electrolytes, which are flammable. As you go up the scale, the risk becomes greater,’ Prof. Forsyth points out. She and her team are particularly interested in alternative chemistry for batteries by using materials such as magnesium and zinc. ‘You need thermal management and a number of engineering solutions,’ she adds. Researchers at BatTRI-Hub are working out which materials put more energy into a battery. Ideally they should be small and light while providing the same amount of charge.

Battery-powered communities

Energy storage technologies will play a huge part in how energy is supplied to communities in the future. Energy storage is the capture of energy that’s held for a later time. ‘By enabling energy storage technology you can move away from a localised system with wires and inefficient transition,’ Prof. Forsyth explains. She predicts batteries will work in conjunction with solar panels and wind turbines, acting as a backup for other renewable systems and points out that our homes could provide battery facilities: ‘You could plug your car into your house,’ for example. In the US, energy storage targets have been set. A White House spokesperson said it could lead to approximately ‘$1 billion in investments in energy storage.’ Prof. Forsyth explains that such technology could be instrumental in changing the way rural communities in particular generate energy.

'By enabling energy storage technology you can move away from a localised system with wires and inefficient transition.'

Professor Maria Forsyth,
Institute for Frontier Materials, Deakin University

People power

Batteries will increasingly play a role in our bodies in the future, such as powering sensors in prosthetic limbs and pacemakers. For these batteries to work, they must be comprised of safe electrolyte material rather than petroleum and be non-flammable. As the aging population grows and lives longer, Prof. Forsyth says there is a rising focus on implants that generate nerve cells. Prof. Forsyth and her team have completed electrolyte research that explores applications for microscale batteries that could dramatically change biomedical procedures. ‘We can enable batteries in prosthetic limbs and generate nerve cells, but they must be biocompatible and non toxic to the body,’ she concludes.

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Professor Maria Forsyth
Professor Maria Forsyth

Institute for Frontier Materials, Deakin University
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