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At his 95th birthday party, last July. Photo: Marsha Miller/UT Austin

The world's most accomplished battery inventor says he has a new cell aimed at electric cars that delivers double the energy density of existing lithium-ion, and, in a first, actually achieves an increase in capacity when it's charged and discharged.

Quick take: The claims, among the most ambitious by any major researcher in recent memory, come in a paper co-authored by John Goodenough, a celebrated 95-year-old professor at the University of Texas who invented the battery used by almost every cell phone on the planet. It was published in the prestigious Journal of the American Chemical Society with co-authors Maria Helena Braga and two other researchers.

In addition to its assertions on energy density and capacity, the paper's main claims include:

  • It is a solid state battery, using no liquid electrolyte, the main cause of lithium-ion battery fires.
  • It uses no cobalt, an expensive metal contained in almost all commercial lithium-ion batteries. In recent months, China has all-but cornered the market for cobalt, whose price has sky-rocketed.
  • It can be cycled more than 23,000 times, while the typical electric car battery cycles 1,000 times.

Goodenough, a perennial candidate for a Nobel prize in chemistry, commands enormous respect in the field, having had himself invented or had a hand in creating almost every major lithium-ion battery currently sold.

But, like research published a little over a year ago by Braga and Goodenough, the paper has raised questions in the battery community. In interviews with Axios, researchers raised the following technical questions:

  • A record-high measure: A metric known as the "relative dielectric constant," which measures how much energy can be stored in an electric field, may be higher than ever recorded in a material.
  • Energy storage: The paper leaves unclear whether a charged battery, once unplugged from its source, can retain that energy or whether the charge will simply vanish, leaving a user, such as a driver, with a dead battery.
  • Rising capacity: Six battery researchers contacted by Axios said that, apart from as an errant anomaly, they had never encountered a rise, rather than a decline, in capacity as a battery is cycled.

Short of seeing added data, all said the findings do not add up. "The way to think about it is that you have a car that can travel 200 miles, and after five years it can go 800 miles," said Venkat Viswanathan, an assistant professor at Carnegie-Mellon University.

  • Gerbrand Ceder, a professor at Cal Berkeley, said their work on these papers "is not what it is stated to be. Most of us have moved on from this saga."

I asked Goodenough and Braga about the doubts. Braga responded: "There are a lot of interests. But time will be on our side." In a followup email, she said,

"Data is data and we have similar data from many different cells, in four different instruments, different labs, glove box. And at the end of the day, the LEDs are lit for days with a very small amount of active material after having cycled for more than 23,000 times."

[In an email exchange after publication of this post, Braga said the battery does hold a charge when unplugged.] Goodenough did not respond to emails seeking comment.

Go deeper: Panasonic is developing cobalt-free batteries, Reuters reports.

This post has been updated with Braga's added comment.

Go deeper

President Joe Biden vows to be "a president for all Americans"

Moments after taking the oath of office, President Joe Biden sought to sooth a nation riven by political divisions and a global pandemic, while warning that "we have far to go" to heal the country and defeat a "virus that silently stalks the the country."

Why it matters: From the same steps that a pro-Trump mob launched an assault on Congress two weeks earlier, the new president paid deference to the endurance of American political institutions.

Updated 32 mins ago - Politics & Policy

Inauguration Day dashboard

U.S. Capitol and stage are lit at sunrise ahead of the inauguration of Joe Biden. Photo: Patrick Semansky - Pool/Getty Images

President Biden has delivered his inaugural address at the Capitol, calling for an end to the politics as total war but warning that "we have far to go" to heal the country.

What's next: Biden and Vice President Harris review readiness of military troops, a long-standing tradition to signify the peaceful transfer of power.

Updated 55 mins ago - Politics & Policy

In photos: The Biden and Harris inauguration

Joe Biden is sworn in as the 46th president of the United States. Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images

Joe Biden and Kamala Harris were inaugurated as president and vice president respectively in a ceremony at the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday morning.

Why it matters: Top Democrats and Republicans gathered for the peaceful transfer of power only two weeks after an unprecedented siege on the building by Trump supporters to disrupt certification of Biden's victory. Trump did not attend Wednesday's ceremony.

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