Efforts to revolutionize air travel and significantly reduce aviation’s carbon footprint have taken a significant stride forward, as NASA delves into cutting-edge solid-state battery technology. With aviation accounting for approximately 2.4 percent of global carbon dioxide emissions, the pursuit of electrified air travel has intensified in recent years, seeking to mitigate the environmental impact associated with traditional fuel-burning engines.
Current battery technology, although suitable for lightweight aircraft such as drones, falls short when it comes to providing the power and range necessary for larger passenger planes. Lithium-ion batteries, ubiquitous in electric cars and personal devices, are also unsuitable for aviation due to safety concerns arising from their flammability, rendering them unfit for flight applications.
Recognizing the critical need for a power solution that meets the unique demands of aviation, NASA has embarked on pioneering research into solid-state batteries. Unlike conventional batteries that utilize liquid electrolyte chemicals – a known safety concern – solid-state batteries offer promise in their ability to avoid hazardous chemical reactions and potential fire hazards, even under damage.
The NASA project SABRES (Solid-state Architecture Batteries for Enhanced Rechargeability and Safety) is at the forefront of this research. These solid-state batteries not only exhibit the requisite power and efficiency required for aviation applications but also demonstrate remarkable resilience, maintaining their structural integrity even in compromised conditions, thus avoiding the ignition risks associated with conventional batteries.
Remarkable advancements have already been achieved in the laboratory. A prototype sulfur selenium battery, a product of the SABERS project, delivers an energy density of 500 watt-hours per kilogram, doubling the capacity of standard lithium-ion batteries. For aviation, swift energy discharge is imperative – an analogy is often drawn to emptying a bucket rapidly. NASA researchers have managed to enhance this discharge rate by a factor of 10, followed by another substantial 5-fold improvement as prototypes evolve.
Moreover, the solid-state batteries exhibit resilience against elevated temperatures, enduring levels twice as high as their lithium-ion counterparts. This resilience, coupled with a lightweight design, enables the packing of more power into a confined space, leading to increased performance capabilities.
Dr. Jane Foster, a lead scientist on the project, underscores the significance of these achievements, stating, “Not only does this design eliminate 30 to 40 percent of the battery’s weight, In addition, it allows us to store two to three times as much energy as a standard lithium-ion battery, greatly beyond their capacities.
While the strides taken by NASA in advancing solid-state battery technology for aviation are substantial, the road ahead remains challenging. Rigorous testing and extensive safety evaluations are prerequisites before these batteries can be approved for commercial aviation use. As such, the application of this transformative technology in real-world scenarios may still be some time away. Nonetheless, NASA’s breakthroughs in enhancing the discharge rate of solid-state batteries have undoubtedly removed significant barriers on the path toward achieving electric-powered flight, heralding a potentially greener future for the aviation industry.