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Electric-Car Battery Breakthroughs: Ultimate Guide

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Lithium-ion battery pack for 2014 Chevrolet Spark EV electric car

Lithium-ion battery pack for 2014 Chevrolet Spark EV electric car

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If it wasn't so important for the future of electric cars, it could almost get tiresome: Just how do you improve batteries for longer life, quicker charging and a greater range?

It's a question being investigated by great minds all around the world, and has turned up some surprising and exciting results over the last few years.

Inspired by Popular Mechanics' look at potential electric vehicle and hybrid battery breakthroughs, we've compiled many of our previous battery tech articles into one handy guide. Which of the following will be our batteries of the future?

 

Aluminum-air

We've all heard--and laughed off--stories of water-powered cars. It just isn't possible on any practical, car-based level.

But aluminum-air uses water in a different way. Aluminum is used as the anode in a battery, ambient air (and the oxygen in it) as a cathode, and water molecules. Combined in the battery, they produce hydrated aluminum oxide and energy--and that energy can be used to power a car.

The aluminum plates used have high energy density, and companies testing it such as Phinergy say you'd need to refill the car with water every few hundred miles. The air--well, that's all around us.

Want to try the physics for yourself? You can even buy a small-scale kit...

 

Improved lithium-ion

Existing lithium-ion technology is among the best battery technology we have for electric cars and hybrids.

Compared to other battery types it's relatively energy-dense, charges relatively quickly, is lighter than many other battery types, and it's tried-and-tested. But it isn't perfect, and several research groups are looking for a way to improve on its existing strengths.

Egg-like nanoparticles for lithium-ion batteries. [Image: Zhi Wei She et al., Stanford University]

Egg-like nanoparticles for lithium-ion batteries. [Image: Zhi Wei She et al., Stanford University]

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Recent advances in nano-technology are proving a popular avenue for lithium-ion. Egg-line nanoparticles of sulfur are one option, improving energy transfer and hugely increasing capacity, while silicon nanoparticles to replace graphite anodes is another.

Others have researched into the existing problems with lithium-ion tech--such as reducing the tendency for lithium to gather around the battery electrodes.

Then there's lithium-air tech--an offshoot of lithium-ion batteries, and one that could significantly increase energy density. Whatever technology is explored, lithium-ion will certainly be here for many more years.

 

Herbs

It sounds unlikely, but simple herbs could be employed to make batteries greener in future.

In a rare look at improving the environmental aspects of batteries rather than increasing their range, researchers at Rice University and the City College of New York have looked at using the herb madder, or purpurin, as a natural cathode for lithium-ion batteries.

You might not gain hundreds of miles, but any eco-minded electric car driver would be glad to know their batteries had just a little less impact on the environment, right?


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Comments (5)
  1. Great idea for an article! The problem is that I read it and still have no idea what the cost, and performance potential benefits are of the different technologies. Or what kind of timeline is in place for each. How about some numbers/charts/data in the article. We need to be able to compare the technologies vs. the Li-Ion baseline. Please provide a bit more than just mentioning the technology and giving a link to another article.
     
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  2. Hi Cameron,

    If such details were available, we'd happily provide them! But as is often the way with such technologies, most of the really interesting details are completely up in the air - until they're closer to production-ready, the true benefits are hard to determine.
     
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  3. In most interviews Elon Musk talks about using Physics to "envelope" a problem, meaning boiling it down to its simplest components; that is, distinguishing that which is possible from what isn't and the kind of best case, worst case parameters.

    So, Cameron's point is right on. Talk to a physicist and find out and report what the theoretical best case percentage improvements are compared to LiFePo are for each innovation.

    Without it, there's not much point I reading the article and it doesn't meet the usual GCR high standard.
     
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  4. Nano-materials seem to be the real key to increasing energy density in LI batteries. I believe Envia has the first provable versions of these batteries, with more to come.

    The metal-air / alluminum-air / zinc-air type batteries are very interesting, especially for a range extender. Everyone keeps bringing up refilling them every 200 miles, but it's a no-brainer to just add a water reservoir. It seems like Tesla is already all over this for the Gen III car.
     
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  5. Is there some way you can speed up the loading time for those stupid candy commercials? Every time I try to move to a different story on your site, the site page opens up right away, but then I have to wait 10-15 seconds for TWIX to show up. Arrrrgh!
     
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