Your phone, your laptop, Tesla’s new Roadster, and even your cousin’s vape all run on lithium-ion batteries. These power cells make the technological world around us spin, there is one tiny issue: They have been known to explode.
A team of scientists on a mission to keep your smartphone from turning into a grenade have possibly made major progress on one of the favorite candidates for a lithium replacement: the element one column over and one row down on the periodic table, magnesium.
Detailed in a paper published in this week’s Nature Communications, researchers for the Department of Energy have discovered a solid conductor called magnesium scandium selenide spinel that could power your laptop just as well as lithium-ion batteries, with none of the safety risks.
It’s important to find a battery replacement that can rival lithium-ion’s performance. After all, besides their occasional flammability — and yes, that’s a big “besides” — lithium-ion batteries are pretty great. They’re really energy dense, meaning they can store a lot of power in a small space, and they don’t lose their charge anywhere near as quickly as other battery chemistries.
The electrolyte, or the liquid in lithium-ion batteries that carries charge between the battery’s positive and negative — the anode and the cathode — is what makes them so dangerous. Specifically, the problem is that it’s a liquid, which can create dangerous instability within the battery.
This new magnesium conductor is a solid, making it much more fire-resistant. Not only is it safer, but it’s also on par with its lithium counterpart in terms of energy density.
After discovering this, the initial research team got some help from scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Argonne National Laboratory. This interdisciplinary team was able to verify that this magnesium material could in fact power up your electronics.
While this discovery has shown great potential, there are still some kinks to be worked out before it can be used to power Tesla’s newest vehicles. The magnesium substance experiences electron leakage, which means it would lose charge even when it’s not being used.
“This probably has a long way to go before you can make a battery out of it, but it’s the first demonstration you can make solid-state materials with really good magnesium mobility through it,” Gerbrand Ceder, a co-author of the paper, said in a statement. “Magnesium is thought to move slowly in most solids, so nobody thought this would be possible.”
Until scientist figure out how to make this new energy source stop running out of juice so quickly lithium-ion will continue to rule the tech we use on a daily basis. No one wants their electric car running out of juice when it’s parked.