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In an electric world, batteries rule - a revolution to come

Battery technology | In an electric world, batteries rule - a revolution to come Anthony Harrington

With the threat of the growing build up of unsustainable concentrations of greenhouse gasses ever before them, the world’s governments in both developed and developing nations are looking increasingly to the electrification of transport as a way of rolling back CO2 emissions. This is the official “Plan B” scheduled to replace our current “Plan A” (briefly defined as 'use fossil fuels until rising costs kill the idea').

There are, of course, mammoth costs involved in building out the infrastructure for a switch from diesel- and petrol-driven vehicles to electric transmission systems, not least of which would be retooling the auto industry and building recharging points everywhere. But these costs pale into insignificance by comparison with the cost of, say, losing much of the low lying and densely populated west and east coasts of the USA to rising sea levels as a consequence of not acting quickly enough to stem global warming. Low lying coastal areas in the US contain some of the most expensive real estate and production capacity in the world.

In this context, President Obama’s announcement back in August 2009, as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, that the government was funding some 48 new, advanced battery and electric drive projects in the US, to a total of £2.4 billion, seems like merely a prudent drop in the ocean. But that funding is stimulating very substantial R&D into next generation batteries. Electric cars need batteries that are lighter and longer lasting than the present generation and which can deliver rapid acceleration without damage to the battery. Other desirable characteristics being researched are better, more environmentally friendly end-of-life and recyclable capabilities, faster recharge times, and less sensitivity to environmental factors such as the sun beating down on the car on a hot day (which currently bleeds significant potential from the battery).

The significance of the scale of the sum pledged by the US government should not be underestimated. At the time it was the largest single investment ever in advanced battery technology for hybrid and electric drive vehicles, and was designed to create tens of thousands of manufacturing jobs in the US battery and auto industries.

One of the key US organisations involved in battery research is the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, which has been grappling, among other things, with the challenge of end-of-lifing the huge numbers of spent batteries that a burgeoning electric car industry could end up generating. The NREL’s favourite solution here, not surprisingly, is recycling, which would keep the hazardous materials that power batteries from entering the waste stream.

When that option is not available, there are basically two choices and some alternatives that sit between the two. The two “poles” (no pun intended) are a) to smelt whatever cannot be recovered, using the slag as, say, an additive to concrete, and b) direct recovery, which aims at complete recovery of all active materials and metals.

One of the most advanced battery designs so far comes from the New Jersey based company, mPhase Technologies, which has pioneered an innovative power cell, which it calls a Smart NanoBattery, in collaboration with Bell Laboratories, once famously part of AT&T, now part of Alcatel-Lucent. The company says it is working with a major European automobile manufacturer to produce an advanced electric car battery with “a smaller footprint” than current batteries.

A key part of mPhase’s approach is using a separation barrier to keep the electrolyte fluid in the batter in a reserve compartment. Composed of a nano particle coated sheet, the barrier can be “tuned” with electric impulses at which point it becomes porous and allows the electrolyte to flow into the battery, generating voltage. The reaction is also reversible. The great thing about this is that it makes possible extremely long life reserve batteries. Where even the most rigorously designed unused batteries would normally have a life of only around 10 years, this permits designs that would easily last 30 years. This could, for example, make "swappable" battery solutions available for electric cars on motorways, providing near instant recharging. (One of the problems with battery stores is ending up with a lot of depleted, or dead batteries.)

There is little doubt that the current surge of interest in “smart” batteries, long life batteries, and ultra small batteries for electronic applications is going to produce results that will transform both the consumer electronics space and transport. Quite what this means for existing technologies remains to be seen, but it demonstrates yet again that companies need to keep a sharp weather eye on the horizon for game changing technologies that could be headed right at them.

Further reading on battery technology, transport, innovation and infrastructure:



Tags: batteries , electric cars , infrastructure for electrification of cars , nanotechnology , smart batteries
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