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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