A 3M innovation could boost battery life by 40%

Battery prod family photo

A lot of us only think about batteries when we’re cursing out your phone or laptop for its dwindling power, but battery innovations will be key for delivering the dream of the mobile, always-on world. And materials giant 3M has a new battery innovation that could deliver gadgets that could run for 40 percent longer without being charged (or could be significantly smaller with standard battery life).

3M has developed a new kind of battery anode made of silicon that can deliver a significant boost in energy density (amount of energy that can be stored in a given volume) for regular lithium ion batteries that are used in our gadgets. A battery is made up of an anode on one side and a cathode on the other, with an electrolyte in between. For a lithium ion battery, lithium ions travel from the anode to the cathode through the electrolyte, creating a chemical reaction that allows electrons to be harvested along the way.

3M, which has been making battery materials since the 90’s, says its silicon anode is made up of a silicon alloy (silicon with lithium) that enables a 20 percent higher energy density when paired with a standard cathode. However, when the anode is paired with 3M’s own specialized cathode, the silicon anode can deliver a 40 percent improvement in energy density for a battery.

Graphite has traditionally been the anode material of choice for batteries, but it’s bulky and can’t hold as much energy as battery makers want. 3M’s silicon anode has a different material architecture which can hold more energy and bands with the lithium in the cycling process. A startup called Amprius, which is backed by Google’s former CEO Eric Schmidt, VantagePoint Venture Partners and Stanford University, is also working on a silicon nanostructured anode.

3M is targeting consumer electronics-focused battery makers, for its anode, and anode/cathode combo technology. Chris Milker, business development manager for 3M Electronic Markets Materials Division, said 3M is already working with original equipment manufacturers for batteries, but wouldn’t disclose the names of any partners.

Milker told me in an interview last month that 3M has been working on this innovation for close to ten years and said while “takes awhile for a revolutionary innovation to be implemented, but a lot of that investment will finally pay off.”

3M received a $4.6 million U.S. Department of Energy grant to develop the silicon anode tech for electric vehicles, and recently began to scale up manufacturing of its silicon anode tech at its factory in Cottage Grove, Minn.

To read more on battery opportunities check out my report in GigaOM Pro (subscription required) and my list of 25 battery breakthroughs for gadgets, electric cars and the grid.

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