One of my favorite PBS series (by way of BBC) is Connections, written and presented by James Burke in 1979. Connections explores an “Alternate View of Change,” the subtitle of the series. Rather than a linear path guided by logic and the scientific method, technological progress is often the result of interconnected events driven by other individual or group motivations (e.g., profit, convenience, curiosity). The series illustrates how the interplay of these events is what drives innovation.
I was reminded of the series recently when I read an article by Steve LeVine in Quartz that described the advent of the lithium-ion battery. The lithium-ion battery evolved from the collision of magnetic audio tape and nickel-cadmium batteries. To drive large-scale adoption of the Sony Camcorder, Sony needed to shrink the size of a video camera, so that it would fit in a consumer’s hand, and to have it operate longer on a single battery charge. The latter challenge led to development of the first lithium-ion cell. The following is directly from the article.
“But Sony also had to quickly figure out how to manufacture this new kind of battery on a commercial scale. Providence stepped in: As it happened, increasingly popular compact discs were beginning to erode the market for cassette tapes, of which Sony was also a major manufacturer. The tapes were made on long manufacturing lines that coated a film with a magnetic slurry, dried it, cut it into long strips, and rolled it up. Looking around the company, Sony’s lithium-ion managers now noticed much of this equipment, and its technicians, standing idle.
“It turned out that the very same equipment could also be used for making lithium-ion batteries. These too could be made by coating a slurry on to a film, then drying and cutting it. In this case the result isn’t magnetic tape, but battery electrodes.
“This equipment, and those technicians, became the backbone of the world’s first lithium-ion battery manufacturing plant, and the model for how they have been made ever since. Today, factories operating on identical principles are turning out every commercial lithium-ion battery on the planet.”
This approach produced a significant initial improvement in performance over the nickel-cadmium battery. However, it has limited the average annual increase in energy density of a lithium-ion battery to about 5% since commercialization in 1991. Unfortunately, this rate cannot keep pace with the energy demands of today’s mobile devices.
But what if your frame of reference was 3D architecture for disk drive read/write heads and wafer probe cards? You might believe that combining 3D architecture with modern wafer production methods is a better way to produce a battery that can take full advantage of Li-ion chemistry—now and in the future. You might think that wafer production could transform battery performance just as ICs have for computing, LEDs for lighting and flat-panel LCDs for video displays.