Nitrogen Batteries charging the Energy Industry

Developments in battery technology hold the key to the future

In a world that increasingly relies on electricity, battery technology is vital. As we transition away from finite resources and towards an electric, sustainable world, batteries will only become more important. Although there have been numerous developments in battery technology, lithium-ion batteries are still the most common due to their affordability. Despite their cost-efficiency, traditional batteries are unsustainable due to material limitations. Researchers are still searching for a competitive, cheap and sustainable solution, and one team at the Changchun Institute of Applied Chemistry in China is doing exactly that – with nitrogen. So how does their nitrogen-powered battery work, and what implications does it have for battery technology?

Another step forward in battery technology
Traditional lithium ion batteries create energy by breaking down lithium nitride into lithium and nitrogen gas. The Li-N2 (lithium nitrogen) battery prototype developed at the Changchun Institute, however, runs on atmospheric nitrogen. This represents a far more efficient way of converting the chemical element than the regular Haber-Bosch process, which uses fossil fuels. In a paper published in Chem, the researchers explained that their process reverses the chemical reaction that happens in lithium-ion batteries. Although the product currently exists as proof-of-concept, the team states that it can achieve a similar energy output to common, lithium ion versions. Whilst the technology is only in the first stages of development, it’s worth getting excited about. Nitrogen makes up 80% of Earth’s atmosphere – harnessing the power of a common element is a sustainable and arguably renewable way to generate energy. Even so, there’s a long way to go before the battery can become publicly available. More effective nitrogen fixation catalysts need to be developed, and more research needs to be done in battery reaction mechanisms. It’s not just academic institutions that are fuelling advancements. Companies like Tesla Motors, Samsung SDI, General Electric and a plethora of startups including 24M are focusing on alternative battery power.

How disruptive is new battery technology?
According to the paper’s lead author, Xin-Bo Zhang, nitrogen battery solutions provide “fundamental and technological progress” in energy storage systems. As nitrogen is so readily available, in theory it could make power more sustainable and accessible. The conversion of nitrogen into useful substances could also impact industries outside of energy, including agriculture and healthcare. Nitrogen-powered batteries are just one of the many suggested replacements for lithium ion. Other alternative battery tech promises super-fast charging, extensive battery life and clean power. New home battery systems under development at Tesla will take the control of power away from legacy providers and enable domestic energy storage. Increasing storage capacity in general will enable faster, more powerful consumer devices, as well as encouraging the creation of reliable, renewable energy storage. However, technology is still playing a game of catch-up with innovative concepts. Adoption, which may lead to disruption, can only happen once technological ability can fulfil these ambitious new concepts. Even when these batteries are available to the public, it will be difficult to transition from current lithium ion as so much of manufacturing and production relies upon it. Barriers aside, there is a growing army of companied and academic facilities determined to change power creation. It’s really only a matter of time before one of them conquers the market.

Research and development into Li-N2 batteries is still in the very initial stages, but the disruptive potential of affordable, accessible and environmentally friendly energy generation is huge. Even outside of energy production, nitrogen-based products and materials could benefit a plethora of industries. Until now, the lithium ion battery has remained the most cost-effective solution – but this reign can’t last forever. The Li-N2 solution is yet another name to add to a growing list of alternative battery tech, including silicon anode, solid state, sulphur, lithium air, sodium-ion, magnesium and lithium capacitors. Whether the work underway at the Changchun Institute can provide a suitable replacement for everyday batteries remains to be seen, but one thing is for certain – the research area has never been so full of ambitious innovators.

Is the Li-N2 battery the next breakthrough in battery technology? Which other industries could benefit from cheaper nitrogen conversion? Will alternative energy generation ever fully replace traditional lithium ion options? Comment below with your thoughts.