The greatest enemy of the electric car is its battery

Visit a wealthy enclave in California as the La Jolla or a super technological as Mountain View and will be peering into the future. The future of the car, we want to say. One of every two cars you see on the street is a Tesla a Nissan Leaf a Toyota Prius or something similar. Hybrid and electric vehicles are perfectly mingled with regular traffic and many businesses, shopping centers and homes have installed charging points.

If the manufacturers of electric vehicles achieve open their horizons this is the future that we will have at some point. And they are putting a lot of money to make this a reality. The question is: is it easy to understand the demands of small cities to entire countries?

In California, the company Tesla Motors Elon Musk recently submitted plans to install a large battery factory in an unspecified location in the southwestern United States (which is the subject of lively debate). It is estimated that this call “megafactoria” will cost $ 5,000 million and fabricate batteries lithium ion 500,000 cars by 2020, which means that every year will do the same thing occurred worldwide in 2013.

But some believe that the plan will be obsolete by the time Tesla factory is running. Phil Gott, executive planning director IHS Automotive, thinks the ambitious Tesla is “possibly premature”. They are developing new technologies to solve what experts say is one of the major limiting factors for electric vehicles.

The problem faced by these cars is that the batteries are large and heavy and therefore can only be installed a limited number. The Tesla Model S, for example, has a battery kit approximately 2 meters in length by 1.2 meters wide, which is installed horizontally on the ground.

In the best of the models, this gives a range of about 482 km. The Nissan Leaf achieved some 128 km. In addition to that, the load is a much slower process than simply fill the petrol tank.

Then, how can you produce better batteries? The most basic battery contains a positive electrode and a negative one, a separator and an electrolyte. The electrodes may be of many different materials and different combinations of materials allow you to store different amounts of energy. However, battery life and the safety features change depending on the materials change, so it is always necessary to reach an agreement.

Lithium-ion batteries are popular but have been involved in aircraft fires and their transport is restricted. Any more reactive or unstable element could be dangerous. However, finding the right combination could give huge profits. The latest developments are part of a long line of improvements that has worked for decades. Had lead-acid batteries, the kind that is still commonly used in cars first; these are huge.


Then perhaps remember the NiCad (nickel-cadmium) batteries. Rechargeable batteries were announcing a new era of mobile technology: computers, phones and the like, as well as the remote control cars from our childhood. Then the batteries NiMH (nickel metal hydride) came with approximately twice the capacity or energy density. Now, the modern devices and electric cars are powered by batteries Li-ion or lithium-ion.

And get ready for the battery technology has increasingly complicated names: LiNiMnCo (oxides of lithium-nickel-manganese-cobalt), for example. These materials have complex properties and the current work is to find out not only why these materials work, but also exactly how they work: the basic physics of electrons moving around these materials.

“At Argonne we are working with materials that can duplicate the current density of energy available for batteries”, says Daniel Abraham, a materials scientist from Argonne National Laboratory, in the outskirts of Chicago, USA. “We dream or imagine the types of materials that we would like to work and then try to synthesize materials in the laboratory”.

Currently, the batteries are most are lithium-air, or more appropriately, lithium-oxygen plus lithium-sulfur batteries. Lithium-oxygen, if achieved under all operating conditions, be an exponential improvement over current lithium-ion batteries. “Right now is a very active field”, says Abraham.

Indeed, Volkswagen recently hinted that it is investigating lithium-air. They have not revealed what precise combination of chemicals and materials are being used, as it continued development work. The company engineers say even if the technology was tested in cars or is still in a phase of “test lab”.

But even though the technology has a revolutionary potential, the technical challenges to manufacture a battery lithium-air that operates in a regular, reliable and secure, and more than anything for long periods, are large. Until now, has been shown that the electrodes are unstable.

However, laboratories worldwide are working on the problem trying to overcome the disadvantages. The hope is that the increased emphasis on these technologies “beyond lithium ions” ensure faster progress in their development, and achieve long-term cars faster and can travel farther.

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