Batteries, being such fundamental components in everything from smart phones to electric cars, are truly at the forefront of the evolution of consumer and industrial markets. Battery technology has come a long way over the past quarter of a century, though the rate of development has increased significantly in the last five years. This is in no small part due to the importance of energy storage to the future of our planet, both from a technological and an environmental perspective.
Here’s a look at the fundamentals of battery development, and how innovators can protect and exploit their endeavours in some creative ways.
The limitations of lithium-ion
Over the past couple of decades, lithium-ion battery technology has been the cornerstone of both industrial and consumer devices and systems. However, its limitations have become apparent, with research and development efforts being intensified to find an alternative which can meet ever-increasing global demand.
Solid-state battery technology has emerged as one possible path for development. This replaces the liquid electrolyte with a solid construct such as a polymer network. These types of systems are certainly advantageous and major players in the automotive industry are currently racing to be the first to implement the technology widely.
The drivers for battery development are uniform to almost all commercial sectors. These include cost, energy density, power density, safety (to eliminate thermal runaway, explosion, fire, etc.), lifetime, operating temperature, predictability and recyclability.
As such, development is being approached from four fundamental perspectives.
The four fundamentals of battery development
1. Battery pack components
Including the battery cell and its assembly, the module pack case and connectors, the thermal management system and the battery management system (BMS) — both hardware and software.
2. Cell components
Including anode and cathode films and coatings, slurry mixing to create anode and cathode films, solid state electrolytes and electrolyte solutions, cell separators and coatings.
3. Cell component materials
Including copper foil developments, graphite- (graphene-) based materials for anodes, anode and cathode coatings and solvent mixtures, LiNMC cathode materials, aluminium foils for cathode coatings, insulating polymer films and ceramic coatings for separators and insulators.
Also, new generation materials are continually being developed for foils, films and coatings, in addition to solid and solution electrolytes.
4. Fundamental materials
With consideration given to a refined set of technology drivers such as cost, energy density, safety and lifetime, next generation materials are evolving based around copper, graphite (graphene), aqueous/solvent mixtures, binders, dispersants, high-conductivity carbons, cobalt, nickel and manganese materials, lithium carbonates, organic carbonates, aluminium, a variety of organic and inorganic polymers for insulating and separating materials, aluminium oxide and other ceramic materials primarily used as separators.
The importance of patent protection
When it comes to technology development, the importance of patents cannot be overstated. Any companies which are looking to enhance their existing portfolios or create new contributory technologies should always be in a position to prevent unauthorised commercialisation of their new technologies and be able to exploit any commercial opportunities themselves.
Many organisations at the forefront of such battery technologies might not realise that patents can be used to not only protect novel and inventive apparatus, devices, components, materials and structures, but also methods of manufacture, assembly and even the use of existing or new apparatus and components. In fact, in the modern age, a successful patent rarely protects a fundamental ‘game-changing’ innovation, with the vast majority of applications/patents directed to refinements or improvements on existing new and patented technology.
For example, a first generation product may perform at a certain level with an associated patent providing commercial protection lasting 20 years. The second generation naturally provides an improvement which then becomes the industry standard, with its corresponding patent filed more recently and therefore providing patent protection extending beyond that of the initial, first generation patent. This way, industries continually protect next generation products and materials to drive technology forward and maintain a commercial advantage through sequential patent filings.