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Nanoelectronics May 2018 Viewpoints

Technology Analyst: Guy Garrud

Nanostructured Energy Storage

By Alastair Cunningham
Cunningham is an independent consultant specializing in nanomaterials and electronics.

Why is this topic significant?

Energy-storage solutions are becoming increasingly important as renewable energy grows in prominence and consumers adopt products such as electric vehicles. Incremental advances in performance could prove critical in a highly competitive industry.

Description

In November 2017, scientists at Imec—in collaboration with Panasonic—released the results of their research into novel solid-state electrolytes for lithium-ion batteries. The researchers used a nanocomposite material—a mesoporous silicon dioxide structure with pores on the order of 2 to 50 nanometers—that exhibits an ionic conductivity that is "several times greater" than that of the liquid electrolytes that currently find use in the majority of batteries on the market today. The scientists fabricated test cells using the material and observed an ionic conductivity of 10 to 30 millisiemens per centimeter (mS/cm). The team hopes to achieve results of approximately 100 mS/cm within the next few years in order to make commercialization of the material a realistic prospect. As is true for the majority of emerging technologies, other aspects of the novel electrolyte material that will have to improve include the reliability and the cost. The material performs well over 50 to 100 cycles, whereas a commercial product would have to endure approximately 10,000 charge-discharge cycles. In addition to working on the reliability of the material, the scientists will also have to demonstrate that industrial-scale production of a sufficiently high quality and at suitably low prices is possible before any commercialization can take place.

Implications

Electrodes and electrolytes represent the two key elements of a battery for which research could enable improved performance. The Imec-Panasonic research is a significant step toward advancing the properties of electrolytes. Combining high-quality solid-state electrolytes with, for example, nanoparticle-based electrodes that optimize the contact area would lead to faster electrochemical reactions that enhance battery energy and power densities. Incremental improvements, such as that proposed by the Imec-Panasonic partnership, could yield performance enhancements of a factor of two for current battery technology. Such an advance might not prove to be a game changer in the industry but would represent a significant development in a highly competitive market, with speed of charging and energy density being particularly important for the potential commercial success of products such as electric vehicles and stationary energy storage.

Ultimately, costs below $0.06 per kilowatt-hour per cycle would enable the novel battery to compete with current technology. However the Imec-Panasonic research is not yet sufficiently well developed to calculate such costs accurately.

Impacts/Disruptions

Rapid improvements in renewable energy technology, driven by increasing global energy demands, are in turn enabling progress within the stationary-energy-storage sector. Similarly, an increase in the uptake of electric and hybrid vehicles will likely require the introduction of batteries with improved energy density. Advances in battery technology are both enabling and driven by the commercialization of electric vehicles, creating a feedback loop that is only likely to increase the chances of the commercial success of both technologies.

Scale of Impact

  • Low
  • Medium
  • High
The scale of impact for this topic is: Medium

Time of Impact

  • Now
  • 5 Years
  • 10 Years
  • 15 Years
The time of impact for this topic is: 10 Years

Opportunities in the following industry areas:

Energy storage, consumer electronics, electric vehicles

Relevant to the following Explorer Technology Areas:

Neuromorphic Supercomputers

By Alastair Cunningham
Cunningham is an independent consultant specializing in nanomaterials and electronics.

Why is this topic significant?

Novel supercomputers could enable a variety of applications that conventional systems cannot support as well as could a step change in performance in existing applications. Recent developments demonstrate that neuromorphic systems are likely to become increasingly important.

Description

In January 2018, the US Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) announced that in summer 2018 it will receive a neuromorphic supercomputer from IBM. The system, which originally developed under a US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency research program—Systems of Neuromorphic Adaptive Plastic Scalable Electronics—in collaboration with Cornell University, is the most advanced fabricated brain-inspired supercomputing system to date. Based on IBM's TrueNorth Neurosynaptic System, the platform is scalable and exhibits the equivalent processing power of 64 million neurons and 16 billion synapses. Much like the truth for a real brain, a further advantage is that the processor consumes very little power relative to other supercomputers. At 10 watts, the processing unit uses an amount of energy similar to that of a table fan, making it extremely energy efficient for the computing power that it possesses. In addition, the neuromorphic processor enables the system to run multiple data sets simultaneously ("data parallelism"), while at the same time enabling multiple neural systems to analyze a single data set collectively ("model parallelism")—providing additional flexibility to an already impressive setup.

Implications

IBM's research represents an important step forward in deep neural-network learning and is the most advanced example to date of fabricated neuromorphic computing. Indeed, the TrueNorth system—through its neural-network design—is likely to outperform conventional silicon-based computers for tasks such as pattern recognition and integrated sensory processing.

For AFRL—investigating the use of the system in military applications for which improved size, weight, and power could make a significant difference on the battlefield—this system marks a "key milestone" in its research capabilities and, according to representatives of the organization, will "provide us with a platform to further our research." The emerging nature of the technology means that no concrete examples of applications exist at present. However, early systems are likely to see use in mobile and autonomous devices.

Impacts/Disruptions

The advent of novel supercomputing technologies will enable the investigation of problems that are impossible to address by means of conventional silicon-based computers. However, the various supercomputing techniques under development will not necessarily compete with one another, with each possessing a specific set of properties that make it suitable for a particular type of calculation or application. AFRL's Daniel Goddard states that the neuromorphic computers are capable of outperforming conventional systems in terms of size, weight, and power by a factor of at least 1,000—demonstrating the importance of biomimetics. In particular, neuromorphic computers are well suited to complex pattern-recognition applications, and supercomputers with such capabilities will enable high-volume data analytics to a previously unseen extent. For example, in a military domain, computing power, leading to cybersuperiority, is going to become increasingly important. The complex nature of military engagement, involving imperfect and unpredictable scenarios that require taking informed and reasoned decisions, will increasingly receive more sophisticated computing support from advanced systems such as TrueNorth.

Scale of Impact

  • Low
  • Medium
  • High
The scale of impact for this topic is: High

Time of Impact

  • Now
  • 5 Years
  • 10 Years
  • 15 Years
The time of impact for this topic is: 5 Years to 10 Years

Opportunities in the following industry areas:

Defense, big data, artificial intelligence, supercomputing

Relevant to the following Explorer Technology Areas: