Batteries in Space

NASA Glenn Research Center is teaming up with the DOE Joint Center for Energy Storage Research (JCESR) led by Argonne Labs to develop better batteries for future space exploration missions. The JCESR is composed of national leaders in science and engineering from academia, the private sector, and national laboratories.

The Lithium Ion batteries we have today store twice the energy of batteries in 1991. This capacity will not meet NASA's needs for future space endeavors.

Figure 1: NASA present-day battery used for Extravehicular Activity (EVA) spacewalk suits. (Source: NASA)

Figure 1: NASA present-day battery used for Extravehicular Activity (EVA) spacewalk suits.
(Source: NASA)

NASA's batteries will power future rovers, Extravehicular Activity (EVA) spacewalk suits, exploratory rovers and green aviation. The research teams are looking at magnesium and calcium as possible alternative replacements for Lithium-based cells since these alternative elements can hold two positive charges per ion vs. one for Lithium. Packing the ions more densely is also being looked at.

Figure 2: The Extravehicle Mobility Unit (EMU) in the EVA spacesuit, is powered by the EMU battery (In Figure 1) which is a removable, rechargeable lithium ion battery that enables communication, circulation of oxygen and removal of carbon dioxide through a fan. (Source: NASA)

Figure 2: The Extravehicle Mobility Unit (EMU) in the EVA spacesuit, is powered by the EMU battery (In Figure 1) which is a removable, rechargeable lithium ion battery that enables communication, circulation of oxygen and removal of carbon dioxide through a fan.
(Source: NASA)

Scientists will need high-performance computing to model complex physical and chemical processes. NASA Ames has the Pleiades supercomputer which is one of the worlds most powerful. The system contains the following types of Intel® Xeon® processors: E5-2680v2 (Ivy Bridge), E5-2670 (Sandy Bridge), and X5670 (Westmere). Pleiades is named after the astronomical open star cluster of the same name.

Figure 3: NASA Pleiades Supercomputer (Source: NASA)

Figure 3: NASA Pleiades Supercomputer
(Source: NASA)

The space community needs significant breakthroughs in basic research before we can produce large batteries that are affordable, efficient, safe and reliable enough for widespread use. There is a technology gap in energy storage that must be overcome. Thus far the scientific community has not achieved the theoretical limits on specific energy. Even if we can improve lithium ion to its theoretical maximum, you will only be able to improve the Li-ion practical vs. theoretical limit ever so slightly.

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20 comments on “Batteries in Space

  1. Davidled
    April 8, 2014

    I remembered that Boeing had the battery pack issue in the air. Well, battery pack with battery control module (BCM) would be embedded in the module shown in Figure 1. More study would be required for control method of chemical battery pack including chemical Li-Ion Battery itself to avoid the previous issues. Hence, I still preferred Lead Acid rather than Li-Ion type battery.

  2. eafpres
    April 9, 2014

    @DaeJ–Although NASA has had some spectacular failures and mistakes, in fact the environments they need to work in are far more extreme than what Boeing's 787 has to deal with.  Just consider simple things; in orbit where there isn't much atmosphere and minimal convective heat transfer on the outside of a spacecraft, the side facing the sun gets hot very fast and the other side cold.  The the thermal stresses are large, and many cycle take place for a spacecraft.

    So although Li-Ion seems “dangerous” due to lots of press on Boeing or Tesla failures, I don't expect to read about those issues with NASA.  They are very conservative; consider that some Boeing 747's use a version of Windows NT for the AV system.  Although that is quite dated, it is very advanced compared to software on the Space Station, I think.  I don't think NASA will take risks like the EV business has done.

  3. eafpres
    April 9, 2014

    Thanks for the article, Steve.  I think that it is hard for most people, even engineers, to understand how far ahead NASA has to plan to be able to do missions in space.  Their situation seems similar to the military; the advanced R&D is way out there, but the equipment deployed seems old in many cases.  There just isn't a lot of backup in space, no matter what they show in the movies, and I think NASA is very clear on that!

    I wonder if at some point large scale battery construction could take place on the moon, using elements found there as much as possible thereby reducing the cost of sending heavy batteries into space from Earth.  I'm neither a battery expert nor a space scientist, but according to that authoratative source Wikipedia, “the crust of the Moon is composed mostly of oxygen, silicon, magnesium, iron, calcium, and aluminum.”.  At least some of that sounds useful.  Also, if there is water there, that could be an added bonus.

  4. samicksha
    April 9, 2014

    Thank You@eafpres, i guess considerable fact here is effect of space temperature and radiation on discharge capacity.

  5. Davidled
    April 9, 2014

    I image that NASA has a lot of facility of testing chamber where space environment could be simulated. All battery would be evaluated through stress testing in chamber. However, when battery is highly stressed in harsh environment, electrochemical cells would be actively overreacting inside battery pack. I recommend that NASA might use unmanned rocket with battery pack equipment until this type battery is fully evaluated.

  6. eafpres
    April 9, 2014

    @DaeJ–I think your point is very valid.  One option would be to assemble some of the battery but not all, and do the final assembly in space using robotic arms etc.  It would be possible to build an automated test platform that could be released in orbit and operated remotely, for instance.

  7. RedDerek
    April 9, 2014

    Since LiON batteries tend to flash when the Li is exposed to air, would it still be fuctional in space since there is very little O2 to react with?

  8. RedDerek
    April 9, 2014

    @eafpres1 –  Their situation seems similar to the military; the advanced R&D is way out there, but the equipment deployed seems old in many cases.

    I agree that NASA's vision is far out ahead. Today's approach to things seem much more cautious than before. The Mercury through Apollo programs were clearly high-tech for their day using multiple factors for safety. Yet today it is analyze the heck out of stuff and design with thin margins – 1.5 is thin compared to some of the Apollo's 4 and 5.

  9. Netcrawl
    April 9, 2014

    @Steve great post! @RedDerek, I think its not just about storage-energy capacity, the ability to store a significant amounts of energy, its about performance and efficiency- they need to function across a wide temperature range, maintain capacity and able to safe operations in close proximity to humans and space equipments.  

  10. Netcrawl
    April 9, 2014

    yes, its not the safest due to the catastrophic failures that associated with them but Lithium-Ion battery still the highest in  energy density of all rechargeable battery. 

  11. Netcrawl
    April 9, 2014

    NASA need to do some stringent testing to all its batteries, testing includes cell chemistry evaluation, charge and discharge performance, impact and internal short tests, and failure analysis.   

    @Daej good point but  I think its quite expensive, building unmanned rocket, NASA is taking some cost-cutting works here. 

  12. etnapowers
    April 10, 2014

    @Netcrawl: I agree with you, NASA has to perform the test on batteries and outsource some irradiation tests to radiation facilities to have a clear picture of all the reliability issues that may arise in the aerospace environment.

  13. samicksha
    April 15, 2014

    I was reading around a press release by NASA which says that they are searching for something more than just batteries. NASA's solicitation has two category areas: “High Specific Energy System Level Concepts,” which will focus on cell chemistry and system level battery technologies, such as packaging and cell integration; and, “Very High Specific Energy Devices,” which will focus on energy storage technologies that can go beyond the current theoretical limits of Lithium batteries while maintaining the cycle life and safety characteristics demanded of energy storage systems used in space applications. Source:

  14. Sachin
    April 16, 2014

    This is not going to be a mean feat and it is good to know that NASA has taken note of that fact. Although it is easy to argue that the -1.5 margin that NASA attached to the testing is a little on the higher side, when you consider the devastating effects that any malfunction can cause then you will see why they really and literally have to “test the heck out of stuff”. I think the story of the Chinese Rabbit is still fresh in all our memories.

  15. Sachin
    April 16, 2014

    The results of this joint research, if satisfactory, will have far reaching results that will definitely extend way beyond the realms of space exploration. In particular, they may just be the answer to the headache that has been tormenting design engineers involved in the design of wearable technology; namely how to improve the power efficiency of the devices. With a solution from this task force, maybe they will not have to worry so much about increasing the power efficiency as a way to extend the lives of the devices and gadgets.

  16. SunitaT
    April 29, 2014

    I think that even as the scientific community is struggling to make a major break through in coming up with a better performing version of the lithium ion batter, they should conduct their experiments in a much more safe manner to ensure that it does not make any kind of destruction to the aerospace ecosystem. Another thing I would advise on, is that this tests should be restricted to the outer atmosphere given the great loses that may be incurred, for every little mistake carried out with these kinds of experiments. But my word is that NASA should go ahead with its research based on this, so as to improve on space exploration, there is very much that has not yet been discovered about the space and how the different living and non living forms in it can prove beneficial to earth as a planet. 

  17. SunitaT
    April 29, 2014

    Analog computation should not be looked down upon even with the current outburst of the incredibly trending digital advancements. This is because, when you do a keen research, you will see that analog computation involves parallel operation. This means that many tasks can be accomplished simultaneously. However, this is not the case with digital computation which only allows for a single calculation at a time. Analog computation also includes continuous variables that can include any conceivable number as opposed to discrete numbers in digital computation.

  18. etnapowers
    May 7, 2014

    @samicksha: nice link, thank you. This link puts on evidence the need of Aerospace applications for energy saving and management that has to be effective and reliable at the same time, the aerospace environment is really a tough place to manage and save the electric energy, so it will be a big challenge.

  19. etnapowers
    May 7, 2014
    @samicksha: following the interesting link you have indicated , I found the interesting new flight opportunity NASA SpaceShipTwo that will give important results about energy management in aerospace environment:
    “Experiments can also be mounted in unpressurized bays of SpaceShipTwo for research requiring direct access to the space environment, e.g. atmospheric sampling or exposure to the external spaceflight environment.”
  20. Netcrawl
    May 7, 2014

    @etnapowers, NASA has world-class researchers and engineers in this field but it does not appear to have a sufficient strong technical background to appreciate the opportunities for significant advances, its collaboration is still unclear with respect to tasking and funding. Roadmaps and responsibilities need to be clarifed and properly funded.  

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