Battery Tech Breakthroughs: What They Mean for Cars & Clean Energy

A breakthrough that could propel electric cars to the mass market — that’s the buzz about a recent study out of MIT. Here’s the gist of the research, published in the journal Nature: Scientists Byoungwoo Kang and Gerbrand Ceder tweaked the surface structure of lithium ion phosphate, a material commonly used to make batteries. The tweaks allows the material to conduct electricity very quickly and handle repeated charges without degrading, making it possible to have smaller, lighter, quick-charging batteries.

How quick? The researchers say a small battery (for your cell phone, for example) could get a full charge in as little as 10 seconds. In theory, you could plug an all-electric car into a Jetsons-esque fueling station, and drive away fully charged within five minutes, rather than five hours.

While this breakthrough might seem like the missing piece of the electric car puzzle, it’s far from it, according to Giorgio Rizzoni, director of the Center for Automotive Research at Ohio State University. “There’s all this excitement as though the problem has been solved,” Rizzoni said. “It hasn’t.” Rather, like other energy-storage breakthroughs that have emerged over the last several years, he said, it’s one more small step toward electrification of the U.S. auto fleet.

Ceder and Kang contrast their findings with ultracapacitors, which typically recharge quickly but lack storage capacity. They’re not technically batteries, and in fact store much less energy than batteries. As a result, they’ve traditionally been used for quick bursts of energy, rather than endurance. New technology that uses interactions of positively and negatively charged ions coupled with an electrolyte instead of static charges can boost storage capacity, but it’s still only a fraction of what batteries can hold. Rizzoni says the technology holds “outstanding potential” for transient sources of energy (short bursts) in conjunction with batteries — as a backup supply for glitches in the power grid or electric cars, for example, or during times when wind and solar power are low.

Stealthy ultracapacitor startup EEStor, controversial for its bold claims and scanty evidence, has bigger dreams than being an also-ran with batteries. The company says it has developed something of a battery-ultracapacitor hybrid device that can store 10 times the power with one-tenth the weight and volume, at half the cost of lead-acid batteries. If EEStor delivers, it would, in short, turn mobile energy on its head. But Cedar and Kang’s breakthrough, already licensed to two companies and much less of a moonshot (lithium iron phosphate is widely used — it’s the processing technique that’s different), could give EEStor new competition.

Advances in energy storage hold potential not only for electric and plug-in hybrid cars, but also for smart grid projects and utility-scale wind and solar power, in part through holding energy for times when sunshine and wind are absent. But in itself, the battery breakthrough of the month won’t change your life — not the car you drive, the source of electricity for your town or the way you use energy in your home.

Ceder and Kang have been clear about this, though they’ve set an ambitious timeline, saying the technology could be on the market within two to three years. Rizzoni emphasized hurdles beyond manufacturing (also mentioned in MIT’s release about the study), noting that major infrastructure investments (hello, stimulus) would be necessary to achieve the rapid charge times their research has opened up as a possibility. Even if production was a done deal, standard outlets wouldn’t pack enough punch to give the batteries a full charge within minutes.

So where does this leave energy storage research? Taken in combination, recent breakthroughs — which also include 3M’s recently announced battery balancing technology — reflect an industry very much on the move. With a massive injection of federal dollars for battery, energy storage and vehicle research, it’s poised to accelerate. But to put it bluntly, none of the recent breakthroughs will translate to mass transformation of the auto or energy industry unless costs come down (including those associated with licensing proprietary technology) and production ramps up. “It’s not just about the highest performing materials,” Rizzoni said. It’s also about the bottom line.

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