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With battery breakthroughs happening every other week, how do you filter what's worth listening to?

Tags: #battery-developments

There's a global race going on in the arena of battery life and capacity. As this goes on, research is published and picked up by news outlets with regular stories hitting the headlines suggesting that the most recent development is the next big thing. However, behind the headlines there is sometimes a lack of substance. Dr Euan McTurk tells us how to spot what's worth listening to, and what's hyperbole.

If you follow a number of news outlets in the automotive and EV-specific world then you will be used to seeing news stories about the latest breakthrough in battery technology. These happen regularly, and often promise anything from hyper-rapid charging through to crazy energy density, and longevity of operation.

Here's the rub: as journalists we want to write stories that are interesting and contain fact. Usually this is easy, but with things like battery technology there is a fine line between what makes a good headline, and what has serious substance underneath. Furthermore, when one outlet runs what looks like a good story, other outlets will often follow suit. Trouble is journalists are not scientists and most are time-poor and therefore don't have the time to interrogate the facts behind a story.

At Discover EV we do our best to sort what's worth reading and what's not. We've worked in automotive PR and journalism long enough to spot most BS, and we often ask questions where others don't, but we don't always get it right. Over on electrek they've been having the same quandary when co-inventor or the lithium-ion battery, John Goodenough, announced a breakthrough which could elevate batteries thanks to better energy density, longevity and low charging times.

In this instance we're talking about sodium-glass battery tech which, in simple terms, uses glass doped with lithium or sodium as the battery's electrolyte and gives all the properties that researchers have long been looking for. But can we trust the research?

Electrek's conclusion after examining the source – John Goodenough, publication in which it was published – IEE Spectrum, and peer review – Donald Sadoway, an MIT professor, was that yes, it's a source and research worth taking seriously.

We fired the piece over to UK-based battery expert and all-round EV man, Dr Euan McTurk, who agrees. But he also knows how to cut through the BS when looking at fresh research, and here he gives you some pointers of what to look for so you can do the same.

It can be difficult for the public to filter out the good from the bad, not least since most of the journal articles are behind a paywall and mainstream media outlets will run with any news that generates clicks, regardless of its integrity. Where presented, or freely available to read, it's worth bearing in mind the following:

  • Who are the authors of the research being reported: Do they have a strong pedigree in battery research? Has their work previously made it into commercial cells? Obviously academics have to start somewhere, but if the work originates from a respected electrochemist, that's a good sign of quality.
  • What is the journal that is being cited: Is the journal a respected one with a high impact factor, known for its high levels of scrutiny in the articles that it publishes? Quality research will have to run the toughest of gauntlets known as peer review, where other academics grill the contents of the paper to ensure that the research was conducted to the highest of standards and that the results presented are accurate. As for those academics who are just starting out in battery research, if their work is published in a respected journal, chances are it has been peer-reviewed by top battery academics, so it checks out. There are some notorious journals that will publish almost anything, but thankfully these are in the minority.
  • What information is given about the cell: Is there any mention of cycle life, and if so, is it over 1000 cycles, which tends to be the minimum standard for automotive Li-ion cells? What about C-rate, i.e. how high a current were the cells subjected to with respect to their capacity? If they were just trickled for a few cycles, then that proves nothing in the real world.
  • Further cell considerations: What capacity were the cells? Were they just tiny coin cells or have the researchers attempted to scale them up to automotive size cells? Some ‘miracle’ chemistries do not scale (easily) and are only suited to low capacity, low current applications. Also, what climatic conditions were the cells tested in? Were they cycled at the sort of temperatures that EV battery packs may be subjected to in the real world (-20 to +60 degrees C is fairly standard for automotive battery tests), or were they just cycled at room temperature? The performance and degradation of cells can vary substantially within the aforementioned temperatures, and a supposed ‘miracle’ chemistry's suitability for use in EVs could quickly fall off a cliff when exposed to the real world.
  • Are any well-known cell or automotive manufacturers associated with the work: The likelihood of a new cell chemistry reaching the market is increased if there is a customer or manufacturer funding, or performing, the research. Take for example Jeff Dahn's research group, which is backed by Tesla, and has made big gains in cell performance through electrolyte additives. That means that there's a direct route to market for these new chemistries. Again, academics have to start somewhere, but it can be a long and tortuous road to commercialisation, especially if your ‘miracle’ chemistry is markedly different to what customers and manufacturers are used to, or can produce on their production lines.

Remember, even if a cell chemistry does represent a genuine breakthrough in performance, it will likely take two to five years before it ends up in an electric vehicle that you can buy, since the cell and automotive manufacturers will want to conduct extensive tests to ensure that it is fit for purpose.

Discover EV's take

From our perspective as a regular publisher of news, we do try to interrogate what news is being sent to us or is being published by our peers in the industry. We also try to frame things accurately, as we're acutely aware that so-called ‘miracle’ technologies are literally too good to be true and more to the point, often won't make it to production.

While we at Discover EV get the excitement of talking to the people behind a lot of the projects we write about, we'd always recommend reading source material where it's linked, and if you take Dr Euan's advice, you too can cast a critical eye over what's being presented in the news.

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