Improved Batteries for Electric Cars Could Recharge in Seconds

By Eliza Strickland | March 12, 2009 10:31 am

Chevy VoltResearchers may have found a way to drastically increase the performance of the lithium ion batteries that power everything from electric cars to laptops. By reconfiguring the battery to allow lithium ions to rush in and out about 100 times faster than before, researchers say they’ve created a prototype that provides fast bursts of power and also, crucially, recharges in seconds. A prototype of a battery made with the new technique could be charged in less than 20 seconds compared to the six minutes it took to charge cells made in the standard way [Australian Broadcasting Corporation].

Lithium ion batteries are capable of storing a great deal of energy, and have therefore been selected for use in electric cars like the Tesla Roadster (which uses 6,831 individual cells) and the Chevy Volt. But getting the lithium ions in and out is a drawn-out affair. This phenomenon explains why some electric vehicles (the rip-roaring $109,000 Tesla Roadster with its massive battery pack excluded) can reach high speeds, but they suffer from poor acceleration compared with the propulsive force unleashed by the rapid succession of mini explosions in an internal combustion engine. The slow exchange of ions also means lithium ion batteries recharge slowly—just think of how long you have to charge your tiny cell phone [Scientific American].

Researcher Gerbrand Ceder and his team studied the movement of ions through the traditional lithium iron phosphate battery material, and found that lithium ions travel through tunnels accessed from the surface of the material. If a lithium ion at the surface is directly in front of a tunnel entrance, it can quickly deliver a charge. But if the ion is not at the entrance, it cannot easily move there, making it less efficient at delivering a charge [Reuters].

For the breakthrough, described in a new paper in Nature, researchers created a prototype nicknamed the “beltway battery”, after the orbital motorway in Washington DC, because it uses a bypass system to let lithium ions that carry charge to enter and leave the battery more quickly [Times Online]. Researchers coated the battery material with a layer of glass-like lithium phosphate, and found that this allowed the ions to speed along their way. Because the reconfigured battery uses standard materials and would require only a slight change to the production process, researchers say the new technology could reach the market within three years.

There is one large obstacle to overcome: The batteries might require specialized and expensive charging stations, researchers say, because household electrical outlets aren’t capable of delivering energy quickly enough. However, yesterday’s discussion of turning the West Coast’s Interstate 5 into a “green freeway” studded with alternative fueling stations offers a possible solution, as the rest stops could host the specialized chargers.

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Image: Wikimedia Commons, showing a Chevy Volt prototype

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Technology
  • http://n/a george

    Truchs and cars use diesel or gas ( mostly ) , If all cars used the same battery , How about batteries one or two that snap in and snap out , you could pull into a station pay a fee for an exchange, snap out then snap in , drive off.

  • bobberto

    george’s idea sounds good to me

  • Joe

    George’s idea sounds good but has plenty of opportunities to be abused. For example, someone can equip smuggle bombs into the newly exchanged pack of battery (thus, increasing constraints on national/local security forces). Even if there’s no additional plastics put into the package, faulty batteries are known to cause explosions and with the level of security we have at gas-pumps, who knows how the battery installers have been screened.

    Also, there should be measures to know which battery has been maintained well and which ones hasn’t been maintained properly so that people who have taken care of their vehicles (and batteries) properly won’t have to put up with those who have abused their batteries.

  • Ken

    @George:

    Just like the propane cylinder exchange at the local home center. Not for me, thanks!

    A friend had such a cylinder catch fire while cooking (a surprisingly small class ABC extinguisher put it out, thankfully). Turns out the top of the tank where the tap is attached had rusted – and had been painted over. The relevant home center was completely unfazed (offered him a free tank exchange but that’s all).

    Your proposal is precisely the same situation. No thanks, I like to know where my energy-storage devices have been …

  • Louis

    Sounds to me like a converter/booster would be a simple affair to build, something that plugged into an existing socket, charged up and then discharged for the battery. Or perhaps a specialized plug and wiring set up, we already have those for many other appliances.

  • Tyler

    Where will the electricity/energy come from to recharge these cars? It must be created. Will it be nuclear, hydro, wave action, natural gas, oil refineries, wind, thermal? Imagine all the energy produced by the gas now filling our vehicles, can it all fit into our current power grid (and accommodate increasing demand)? (no). Will I be forced to pay higher electric heating bills because my neighbor is hording it for his car? (yes) How will we secure our national defense – transport hefty batteries to and from the battle field?

    Demand for energy to power our cars, perhaps flying cars, flat screens, printing presses at the treasury, etc., is only going up. We need a diverse energy supply. We can’t abandon the entire supply chain for combustion engines all at once. I guess I’m like a holdout from horse and buggy days. When we went from horsey power to horse power, someone must have said, “these Model T’s are unreliable, I’ll keep my steed.” Well, for now i’ll keep my gas powered Ford. Someday I’ll come around, not because i’ll be saving the climate, but because my Ford wore out.

  • AzureRaptor

    Tyler,

    It’s probably the idea that all the oil & gas that would’ve gone to fuel motor vehicles and their ilk could be saved and used at central generating plants. Yes, that fossil fuel is still burned – but it’s my understanding that large plants can do so much more efficiently than motor vehicles. Thus, a net energy savings. As such it’s a net public benefit to enhance the grid, if necessary, to handle this, and both public investment and incentives for private investment should be aimed that way.

    Having said that you’re right on the money about energy diversity strategy.

  • Jake

    @George:
    We wouldn’t need to have interchangeable batteries if this technology exists. How long do you sit at the gas station watching the pump, it would recharge in WAY less time then that. To take the battery out and put would in would be a waste of time, money and would limit the size of the battery to something a human can lift.
    @Louis:
    I like that Idea, it could be a good idea in certain circumstances you would need to be able to have other places to be able to charge at, sort of like gas stations I would say. But having the ability at your home is important because that saves a lot of energy.
    @ Tyler:
    There are always the stragglers and holdouts, unfortunately in this case the car companies consist of the stragglers like you, so we can never get anything done in this country. AzureRaptor is right on everything, but I go a step further in saying that if we stopped spending money on oil subsidies(the government pays for you to have $2-3 gas, in other countries they don’t hence the $8 they pay over in europe.) and put those subsidies on other forms of energy, an upgraded electrical grid, we could have solar and wind powering this entire country (including cars) in 6 years. Thats funny you talk about reliability, since you would rather drive yourself around sitting on top of gallons of incredibly explosive liquids. electric cars mean no more non smoking signs at energy stations, it means no more cars bursting into flames on the highway, it means no more oil leaks that cost a thousand dollars to fix, it means no more shaking when you sit at a stop light(no more using energy at a stop light or sitting in traffic.) Electric cars are WAY more reliable to drive, not just a little bit, WAAAAAAY more. Your Ford will wear out soon. While electric cars will have a MUCH longer life span. Your whole argument makes no sense. Yeah I would rather have our troops sitting on tons of explosive liquid then have to figure out how to get them a battery. All I have to say is get with the times. And thats not even with the environmental argument about how we need to stop making cars that if you leave it on for 10 minutes in a closed garage can KILL you, the earth’s atmosphere takes a longer to fill up then your garage but it will(I know its not as simple as that but if no one has gotten through to you yet with the details I’m not going to be the one to try.)

  • QUASAR

    EXCELENT!

  • Jason

    “if no one has gotten through to you yet with the details I’m not going to be the one to try.”

    Well Jake maybe that makes you part of the problem as well, if you aren’t will to educate then you don’t need to preach.

    As for batteries, the ones currently used in cars are made including nickel. Have you ever seen a nickel mine, there as disgusting as any thing else we pull out of the ground for our personal use. Lithium-Ion tech is the way to go, the only thing that has me worried is the risk of explosion when the battery that powers my cars gets hot enough from use. Have you ever felt the battery of a laptop or your cell-phone after extended use. and you want to make that heat source bigger. Have fun cooking yourself in your environmentally friendly car!

  • Charlie

    I,m thinking of converting my car to electric but the problem has been the lack of a decent battery. All to date suffer badly in the heat and here in Samoa, average daytime temperatures are around 34 C, in the shade.

    Any manfacturers thought abut this problem?

    I,m sure that there are areas in the USA that have these temperatures also.

  • http://www.batteryniche.com Battery Technology

    @Jake
    How about we have a battery powered robot who can lift and exchange big heavy batteries, automatically scan them for faults and defects, give directions to anywhere a driver needs to go, then wipes all the windows clean and sends us on our way. Of course, even then, I’m not sure I quite understand just how these batteries are so much safer in an automobile than liquid explosives, but unlike others who refuse to get with your program, I’m trying real hard to grasp the obvious.

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