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NASA’s graphene battery could overtake lithium in the EV revolution

NASA has been testing a new graphene battery that could one day sustainably power our electric planes and road vehicles.

Have we already found the natural progression beyond lithium EV batteries, even though they’ve yet to replace gas? Possibly is the answer.

Beyond its space-based endeavours, NASA is occupied with furthering humanity as we strive to solve our biggest problems.

In the ultimate goal of avoiding irreversible shifts to our climate, there are many things that need to happen and creating sustainable forms of transport that are also affordable is one such dilemma we must crack.

While our green roadmap currently relies on electric vehicles – largely powered by lithium or cobalt batteries – and advances in biofuels, NASA is working on something more all-encompassing: a revolutionary battery made from graphene called SABERS.

The acronym stands for Solid-state Architecture Batteries for Enhanced Rechargeability & Safety, and involves developing the holy grail of all power units. Supposedly, it could make electric flight possible, and would impact everything from public transportation to our phones and laptops.

Developed at a research centre in Cleveland, Ohio, SABERS has eliminated all of the toxic and dangerous materials that make current electrical batteries too risky or inefficient to replace fossil fuels, certainly for flying a plane full of over 100 people, for example.

For context, your average 747 flier requires a power density of at least 480 watt-hour per kilogram and the best a lithium battery can offer is around 260 watt-hour per kilogram.

Ion batteries found in today’s hybrid vehicles are made up of three parts: the top being a cathode (made of lithium and cobalt), a filling comprised of a flammable electrolyte, and the electrode at the bottom generally made from graphite.

The chemical reactions between these components allow the batteries to charge, store, and deliver electricity effectively, but fail to perform at anywhere near the same efficiency as fossil fuels. A 2016 study from the US Department of Energy suggested we’re ‘three decades’ from closing the gap using this power source.

Beyond these drawbacks, there’s no established formula for safely recycling the batteries and the rare Earth minerals needed to build them are a constant cause of geopolitical tension.

The formation of early SABERS prototypes goes: lithium metal (instead of ion, which is like gel), a cathode of sulfur and selenium arranged in graphene mesh, and an unspecified property of NASA which is solid and free of the flammable components in lithium ions.

Preliminary tests have displayed a seriously impressive power density of 500 watt-hours per kilogram which tops the minimum requirement for commercial flights. Operative temperatures haven’t exceeded 302 fahrenheit at maximum capacity, and researchers found it required far less cooling than lithium ion too.

This could potentially mean that we’ve found a more promising avenue away from ceaseless fossil fuel usage than lithium, and before ion batteries have even made a significant dent.

‘Batteries like the technology they [NASA] are working on are needed to extend the range of electric vehicles and even enable electric or hybrid-electric aircraft, and I think it is great that NASA is advancing this next generation battery technology,’ said Dr. Matthew T.McDowell of the Georgia Institute of Technology.

It’s comforting to know that putting a man on the moon isn’t occupying all of the space agency’s time and effort. We’ve one or two sizable problems that need fixing here first.