Tuesday, November 17, 2015

A step-by-step guide to battery breakthroughs

It’s often said that breakthroughs cannot be scheduled.  I’m here to tell you that this is 20th century thinking.  The statement assumes that the word “breakthrough” is unambiguously defined.   This blog post questions that assumption and provides a step-by-step guide to achieving a breakthrough.  My focus is on batteries, but with a few tweaks, one could adapt this for other areas also. 

Let me begin by saying that in the last century there was a feeling that a breakthrough was thought to be when, for example, you discover a new material for a battery that has, say, higher energy or is safer or something.  Those sorts of breakthroughs then go through the traditional rigmarole of publications, licensing, technology transfer, peer appreciation, awards, products and the rest of the boring stuff that takes 20 years to get settled.  In the age of Twitter, Facebook, Uber, and, Snapchat, this kind of time frame is for the folks unwilling to look to new ways of achieving breakthroughs.  If you belong to this “old” club, I suggest you move on.  This guide will be of no use to you.  

But what is a breakthrough anyway?  As far as I know there is no body that proclaims something a breakthrough (a Pope for science?).  And is there really such a thing as an eureka moment?  Even if you have one, it will be a year before you can reproduce the experiment and get all the techniques in place to prove it.  And if the breakthrough is supposed to be a product, it will take you 10 more years to scale it and make it.

But what if there were a reputable publication that actually called something a breakthrough.  And then this was validated and verified by other publications saying the same thing?  That appears to be in line with the scientific method, does it not?

So, for the purposes of moving forward, let us define a breakthrough as just that: It is proclaimed as such by more than one publication.  Also to help us move forward, publications will be broadly classified as a peer reviewed journal article, or a newspaper, or a blog, or a tweet etc.  i.e., as long as the word breakthrough and your work appear on the World Wide Web somewhere, you are golden.  This guide will help you get there.

A disclaimer:  The results are only guaranteed if you follow each and every step.

Step 1:  Before you begin the research, try not to read the literature.  The peer-reviewed literature is full of things that have been tried before.  If you read them carefully, then what you are doing will not be new.  Remember this mantra (courtesy of NBC when they were promoting reruns in the 90s):  “If you haven’t seen it before, its new to you”. 

Step 2:  As you start the research, remember that facts just get in the way.  The literature is full of facts (hence Step 1).   In 1492 everyone thought the world was flat; until Columbus took to the seas.1  Then we all thought it was round, until Tom Friedman proved it was flat.  Until The Matrix came out, we thought gravity was forever binding us to the earth.  Breakthroughs happen when these laws are broken and it takes a bold person to go where no person has gone before.  To paraphrase Marsellus Wallace from Pulp Fiction, you may feel a slight sting every once in a while when it seems like you are violating faraday’s law.  Those are the facts f*ing with you.   f* facts.

Step 3:  Now that you have done your due diligence and ignored everything, it is time to focus.  Try to work on a newly-discovered material, or atleast one that has been forgotten for a while.  This is an important step.  As much as you can go after Steps 1 and 2, the more studied the material, the harder it is to prove to yourself that you are violating all the well-known laws because you are charting a new path rather than screwing up.  It’s so much easier to believe this if it’s a brand new material.  Graphene is good (not as a battery material, but remember Step 2). So are fullerenes  (granted they are old, but it seems like its time to revisit them).  Graphite, on the other hand, could be bad; unless you plan to use it in a new way; in which case it can be good.  Lithium metal is ALWAYS good; but if you go this route you really need to get religion on Steps 1 and 2.  

Step 4:  As you start getting data on the new invention, revisit Step 2.  Revisit it often, especially when you feel down. 

Step 5:  Time to start writing the paper.  Always state that your invention is better than Li-ion.  The only way to get anyone excited is to say that.  This may sound hard, but it is not.  There are many metrics that need to be satisfied for a battery, including, energy, power, charge time, cost, life, safety, low temperature and high temperature stability.  If you think that you have something that looks better in any one of these, you are doing better than Li-ion.  Cost is the easy one if all else fails.  You can always safely say something like “our preliminary cost estimates suggest that the battery will cost less than something-small/kWh”.  Other end of the spectrum is energy, which is the hardest.  If you go down this path you really need Step 6. 

Step 6:  Always confuse energy with power.  It’s completely appropriate to say “Our pixie dust battery can discharge a factor of 10 faster than Li-ion, therefore EVs based on pixie dust have a longer driving range comparable to Li-ion EVs”  or “our batteries can be charged in 5 minutes, providing more energy than any battery known to man or aliens. On a separate note, we only seem to get one cycle from our battery; we think this has something to do with aliens” 

Step 7:  The paper is ready and it is time to submit.  Never send the paper to a journal that specializes in publishing papers in batteries.  This will get your paper into the hands of traditional battery-types who remember past history, know what works and what does not, and have a strong scientific foundation in the field.  Such knowledge can be an impediment to your out-of-the-box thinking.  Remember Step 2.  Always choose a journal that is disconnected from the battery field. 

Step 8:  With the paper coming out, it is time to prepare for a press release.  Remember that the press wants to hear that this is a breakthrough.   So despite what the peer-reviewed paper proves, make sure you call it a breakthrough at the press release.  Remember that Steve Jobs did not really have a working iPhone when he announced it to the world, and declared that they would ship in 6 months.  If it is good enough for Steve, I’m sure it is good enough for you.  So don’t be shy in telling the press how great your battery will be.  Make sure that you give interviews to numerous publications.  Remember our definition of a breakthrough:  you need multiple publications to say it is one.  So target many outlets. 

Step 9:  The day has arrived; the publications are out; and you have spend the better part of the day googling yourself to see how far the word has spread.  This is the day when you may hear skepticism (some contained within the articles and others in emails addressed to you).  Remember Step 2.  Remind yourself that the iPhone had many critics (e.g, the proximity sensor will not work.  Who would want to surf the web on a phone anyway? Atleast they got the first problem right!).  If it worked out for Steve Jobs, then it could work out for you too.   

Step 10: Remember “Practice makes perfect”.  So go back to Step 1 and repeat. 

All the best. 


1.  Now, you may search Wikipedia, or read some articles that claim that the earth was known to be round since before the Common Era.  But that is because you are reading the literature.  Did we not drill into you in Step 1 that this was bad!   Now stop looking up stuff and get with the program.    


  1. Sadly, between startup press releases, university press releases, and the popular media taking them at their word, it is really hard to not be terribly jaded by it all. All part of a day's work I suppose.

    It is also fairly frustrating that in many cases even the base publications don't provide sufficient details to really evaluate things on industrially relevant metrics. Is it that hard to state the thickness of your electrode, or it's density, etc.

    mAh/g is almost equally the most useful and the most obfuscatory (I think I just made that up) metric by which to compare battery work... In terms of performance, it means everything and nothing at the same time.

  2. Wel... I woke up Sunday morning thinking I would write about how to get past the hype problem. After staring at the keyboard for an hour I decided it was easier to just talk about the problem and atleast bring some humor to the sad situation. But, I do plan to spend the coming Sunday throwing some ideas. Not sure the problem can be solved, but one can but try...

    1. Venkat,

      Awesome. I'll have to pass this on to some of my friends in the battery business. +5 for the Pulp Fiction reference.

  3. Hello. Would you mind if I translate this awesome post to Russian and post it on Facebook with your credits? Thanks.