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Potassium-ion battery is possible – decades long assumption proved wrong

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Posted October 8, 2015

Most of our portable devices nowadays use lithium-ion batteries. They are so widely used and credited for being reliable that it is hard to think of viable alternatives. However, it did not stop scientists from trying and now research at the Oregon State University has showed that potassium can work with graphite in a potassium-ion battery. Scientists are already saying that this discovery could pose a challenge and sustainable alternative to very popular lithium-ion battery.

Electric cars, smartphones, laptops and many other mobile devices use lithium-ion batteries nowadays. But because lithium is very rare, expensive and difficult to recycle alternatives have to be found and scientists think potassium-ion battery may be a good one. Image credit: Norsk Elbilforening via Flickr, CC BY 2.0

Electric cars, smartphones, laptops and many other mobile devices use lithium-ion batteries nowadays. But because lithium is very rare, expensive and difficult to recycle alternatives have to be found and scientists think potassium-ion battery may be a good one. Image credit: Norsk Elbilforening via Flickr, CC BY 2.0

As common as lithium-ion batteries are, there soon may be an alternative battery based on materials that are far more abundant and less costly. Lithium-ion batteries power virtually every mobile device – from a cell phone to an electric car. However, a potassium-ion battery has now been shown to be possible, regardless of decades of false assumptions. In fact, possibility to use a potassium-ion battery was explored back in 1932, when it was determined that such battery would not work properly. Now scientists say that their discovery will overturn this long lasting false assumption.

It is rather surprising that no one really challenged assumption, made back in 1932, when scientists claimed that potassium would not work with graphite or other bulk carbon anodes in a battery. In fact, such battery is possible and now patent is already pending. Findings are extremely important, because now some new alternatives to batteries that can work with well-established and inexpensive graphite as the anode are opened. There is no question that lithium works perfectly with a carbon anode, but the problem is its rarity.

Lithium is found in only 0.0017 %, by weight, of the Earth’s crust. This means that lithium is very expensive. Furthermore, as more and more devices use Li-On batteries, more and more of such batteries get thrown away. And lithium is difficult to recycle. Therefore many researchers have been trying to duplicate its performance with less costly and more readily available materials, such as sodium, magnesium, or potassium.

Manufacturing cost of lithium-ion batteries is pretty much the driving force behind these efforts. Because of lithium rarity, manufacturing at great scale does not really lower the price of the finished product. In fact, scientists argue that the opposite may be true – the more batteries are produced, the more they cost. Or at least will in the near future as demand grows. This means that all possible alternatives have to be explored and potassium is not a bad choice.

Potassium is 880 times more abundant in the Earth’s crust than lithium. Furthermore, this new research negated results from 1932 and demonstrated that potassium can work effectively with graphite or soft carbon in the anode of an electrochemical battery. At this moment batteries constructed around these principles do not have performance that equals those of lithium-ion batteries, but scientists hope that with improving technology and other researches that will follow potassium-ion batteries may be a viable alternative for energy storage.

Xiulei (David) Ji, the lead author of the study, explained: “It’s safe to say that the energy density of a potassium-ion battery may never exceed that of lithium-ion batteries. But they may provide a long cycling life, a high power density, a lot lower cost, and be ready to take the advantage of the existing manufacturing processes of carbon anode materials.”

And these characteristics – long cycling life, a high power density and a lot lower cost – are very important not just because of our everyday electronics. Innovative energy storage in batteries solutions are needed for transportation, industry power backup, micro-grid storage, and for the wider use of renewable energy. This means that potassium-ion batteries are very likely to find a good use once they are developed well enough. This also shows that all scientific results, even those made back in 1932, are worth challenging as technology and science progresses.

Source: oregonstate.edu

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