"If you crack it ... it'll change the world," said Carnegie Mellon University materials science professor Jay Whitacre.
Batteries are so crucial to a greener energy future that the Obama administration has spent more than $2 billion to jump-start the advanced battery industry, including setting up what some experts say is a mini-Manhattan Project for batteries.
To make the next breakthrough, researchers will have to master complex chemistry, expensive manufacturing, detailed engineering, a variety of different materials, lengthy testing, stringent safety standards and giant cost problems. It involves dealing with liquids and solids, metals and organic chemicals, and things that are in between, said Glenn Amatucci, director of the Energy Storage Research Group at Rutgers University.
"We're dealing with a system that you can imagine is almost alive. It's almost breathing," Amatucci said. "Trying to understand what's happening within these batteries is incredibly complex."
One reason the battery is the slowpoke of the high-tech highway is that it has conflicting functions. Its primary job is to store energy. But it's also supposed to discharge power, lots of it, quickly. Those two jobs are at odds with each other.
"If you want high storage, you can't get high power," said M. Stanley Whittingham, director of the Northeast Center for Chemical Energy Storage. "People are expecting more than what's possible."
On the commercial market, lithium ion batteries are generally ones small enough to fit into cellphones. But to power bigger items â¿¿ from a Prius to a 787 â¿¿ they get grouped together, increasing the juice they store and provide. That also increases the safety risk, experts say. The lithium ion battery that caught fire in a Boeing 787 weighed 63 pounds and was 19 inches long.
"You can't get around the fundamental thing is that lithium ion batteries are stuffed full of flammable liquid," Whitacre said.