When lithium-ion battery technology replaced nickel cadmium and metal hydride, we really felt like we arrived in power tool industry. In reality, we did. Cordless tools are finally able to replace corded models with enough power and runtime to use all day. But all that might change again with the successful development of a new solid-state battery.
It’s hard to imagine that just a few years after lithium-ion battery packs revolutionized the power tool industry, we might be in the early stages of making them obsolete. Think about all the advantages that lithium-ion brought to the table: No battery memory, more power, longer runtime. Almost overnight, Pro level tools sent NiCad packing with a simple “don’t let the door hit you on the way out!”
But solid-state battery technology (already used in remote controlled cars and electronics) looks to advance even further. It has a longer life cycle, charges and discharges quickly, and is noncombustible. Perhaps most importantly, it’s cheaper. At first glance, there’s really nothing that stands out as detrimental. In fact, the solid-state battery looks to swiftly toss aside lithium-ion as quickly as NiCad was shown the door. That is, provided it can hit the high current levels required for power tools.
How Does Solid-State Battery Technology Work?
Batteries discharge energy and in return charge by moving ions between the negative and positive side of the battery. The direction of the ion shift determines whether the battery is giving out energy or taking it in. From there, we meet John Goodenough (yes, that’s his real name). Never heard of him?
He’s one of the co-inventors of the lithium-ion battery. Even though this technology only took over the power tool industry a few years back, he helped invent the technology 37 years ago. At the age of 94, Dr. Goodenough is doing much more than good enough by creating a successful glass electrolyte solid-state battery.
Instead of using a liquid electrolyte to transport ions between negative and positive sides of the battery, the solid-state form uses sodium instead of lithium. Both are alkali metals effective for transporting those ions. Considering how much of the Earth’s surface is covered by seawater, sodium is a widely available—and cheap—alternative. If it can be used in place of lithium, prices go down even if the performance is identical. But of course, it’s not.
What Other Benefits Are There?
When I say that a solid-state battery can charge quickly, I mean ridiculously fast. Lithium-ion batteries that currently take hours to charge will take mere minutes. It’s much denser that lithium-ion, storing some three times the amount of energy in the same space. You also end up with the battery that still has high conductivity down to four degrees below zero (or -20 degrees Celsius).
Let’s not overlook how significant the stability of a solid-state battery is. One of the biggest dangers—as Samsung has famously proven with its S7—is battery combustion. The fact that the new technology eliminates this risk means manufacturers can create tools that are much more aggressive in their discharge and chargers that are lightning fast. They can also ship them via air freight—a huge boon for batteries given current restrictions.
Uses for a Solid-State Battery
There are obvious products that can benefit from solid-state technology. Nearly every adult (and seemingly child) in the United States and other developed countries now carry a smartphone. Imagine a battery that will power your phone for days instead of having to recharge after a busy morning—all without increasing the size.
One of the most power-hungry product groups getting excited about this breakthrough is the electric car side of the auto industry. Greater range, better acceleration, and lower prices have the potential to make electric cars available to a greater number of buyers.
But what we are really excited about is power tools. We’re just breaking into tool classes like belt sanders and SDS-Max rotary hammers. What other tools might be unlocked for the cordless realm: Power cutters, augers, generators?
And let’s not forget about outdoor power equipment. Ryobi just launched a $2,500 battery-powered riding lawnmower that uses four lead acid batteries. It’s able to run for two hours and cut two acres on one charge. Imagine being able to run for six hours!
The Bottom Line
More power, longer runtime, faster charging, complete stability, and lower pricing make it seem like the solid-state battery is the perfect solution to power virtually everything that uses batteries. Could it replace lithium-ion technology overnight? We’ll have to see. With the information that’s available so far, however, there’s not really an obvious downside to this new breakthrough.
I’ll go on record as saying that if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. However, until we start seeing products in the hands of real-world consumers, we’ll have to rely on lab tests and scientific studies to determine what those limitations will be.
It took the better part of 30 years for lithium-ion technology to find its way into mainstream cordless tools. One of the big questions is how long solid-state will take to move in. Another area of concern for most current cordless tool users is whether or not a new solid-state battery pack will run a tool designed for a lithium-ion pack. After all, NiCad and Lithium-ion aren’t cross compatible. Our guess, however, is that since the transition to smarter packs and tools has already taken place, the shift will occur more readily.
Let’s hope it doesn’t take nearly that long for solid-state battery packs show up. When they do, it’s a good bet we’ll think of lithium-ion batteries the way we do NiCad right now and wonder how we ever built a house without them