NASA’s Solid-State Battery Breakthrough Could Transform Air Travel

NASA may have just found a way to change the future of the aeronautics industry. Researchers at NASA’s Solid-state Architecture Batteries for Enhanced Rechargeability and Safety (SABERS) have successfully created a solid-state battery technically advanced enough to efficiently power an aircraft. Finding a way to make air travel greener has been a critical point of interest for the global path to decarbonization, as well as for the economic wellbeing of the industry in a future where fuel prices will likely continue to increase while policy instruments such as carbon taxes become more commonplace.

The transportation sector is one of the world’s biggest contributors to climate change, producing almost a quarter of total energy-related carbon emissions worldwide – and air travel is one of the biggest offenders. On average, airplanes emit approximately 100 times more carbon dioxide per hour than a shared bus or train ride. Altogether, aviation’s annual emissions are higher than most entire countries, at 1 billion tons of carbon dioxide per year. And the combustion of jet fuel doesn’t just emit carbon, it also produces “nitrogen oxides, soot, water vapor and sulfate aerosols, all of which interact with the atmosphere and have an effect on the climate in different ways and at different time scales.”

Not only will the new batteries be able to electrify aircraft, thus eliminating carbon and non-carbon emissions associated with burning jet fuel, these breakthrough solid-state batteries manage to avoid one of the most major trade-offs plaguing electrification processes writ large: lithium. Lithium is a finite resource associated with its own slew of negative environmental externalities, as well as major geopolitical implications. China currently controls nearly one-third of the world’s lithium supply chains, and diversifying that market will not be easy. Furthermore, lithium’s essential role in a huge number of clean energy infrastructural components has led to soaring prices and a scarcity mindset. Avoiding this sticky situation altogether is a major win for SABERS. Related: US Natural Gas Prices Set For First Weekly Gain In Four Weeks

Not only that, the new NASA solid-state battery is lighter and can store more power than lithium-ion batteries. “We’re starting to approach this new frontier of battery research that could do so much more than lithium-ion batteries can,” said SABERS’ Rocco Viggiano, an investigator at NASA’s Glenn Research Center in Cleveland.

SABERS has also been able to overcome a major disadvantage associated with solid-state battery technology. Typically, lithium-ion batteries are much more efficient when it comes to discharging power. But through a new innovation SABERS has been able to “increase a solid-state battery’s discharge rate by a factor of 10 — and then by another factor of five,” according to a report from Yahoo! News.

When talking about any innovation in aviation, safety is a top priority and concern. Solid-state batteries also eliminate key safety concerns connected with lithium-ion batteries, which contain highly flammable liquid which is historically prone to leakage, requiring extra casing that makes the batteries even heavier. Solid-state batteries don’t contain any liquid at all, which allows them to be stacked in more space-efficient configurations, and they can still be used even when they are damaged. In the extreme temperature changes experienced by aircraft over the course of a flight, such durability is essential. “NASA researchers have found that solid-state batteries can operate at temperatures twice as hot as lithium-ion batteries,” Yahoo! reports. What’s more, “solid-state batteries achieve this using less cooling technology than lithium-ion.”

While the technology is brand new, and not yet commercially viable, it shows enormous disruptive potential. “Aviation is widely recognized as a ‘hard-to-decarbonise’ sector having a strong dependency on liquid fossil fuels and an infrastructure that has long ‘lock-in’ timescales, resulting in fleet slow turnover times,” according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. In this context, the NASA breakthrough is particularly exciting. If these solid-state batteries become cost-effective at scale, the benefits for the transportation sector – as well as global climate goals – are enormous.

By Haley Zaremba for Oilprice.com

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