The next great engineering advancement in batteries is in the lab and it is tantalizingly close to solution.
PARIS — Depending on your point of view, the journey of EE Times/EE Life editorial director Brian Fuller across America in a Chevrolet Volt was either a great adventure or the cushy assignment of the year. In my view, it represented EE Times’ most significant investment thusfar — thanks to the sponsorship of Avnet — in perhaps the most important technology of the 21st century: electric power storage, specifically in the form of long-life batteries.
Fuller and his videographer brother Kirk, driving coast-to-coast in an electric car with internal-combustion backup, was something of a leap of faith. They faced swathes of America in which there exist no power stations to plug in their Volt and recharge the juice in the vehicle’s 288-cell, 16-kilowatt hour battery pack. Right now, 48 of 50 states, according to Car and Driver, have fewer than ten such stations each. This left Brian and Kirk using the Volt’s cute backup 83-hp internal combustion engine a lot more than they might have preferred. Indeed, after the switch from battery (range 35 miles) to gasoline power (an additional 300-odd miles), the Volt averages around 30 miles per gallon. This isn’t bad but, compared to, say, a 1972 Honda Civic, it’s embarrassing.
When I heard about Brian’s “Drive for Innovation” experiment, I found myself focusing not on the current Chevy Volt’s limitations but on the surprising speed of its development. When I first read about Volt prototypes less than two years ago, I understood that an operating, affordable consumer Volt was still far, far away. It wouldn’t hit the market, in any substantial volume, within the decade.
That prediction was over-cautious. Today, there are enough Volts on the road —along with competitors like Nissan’s Leaf, various hybrids and an electric Ford Focus due out in limited production next year — that it might be safe to suggest that the electric car is here to stay.
Advancing the cause is the federal government’s commitment to R&D in power storage technology, batteries in particular. It started with a $69-billion clean-energy package and the revival of General Motors (creator of the Volt). There’s a $7,500 tax credit to purchasers of electric cars, and the Obama administration has invested in battery development throughout America’s 20 National Laboratories. In the current issue of Washington Monthly, Eric D. Isaacs, director of the Argonne National Laboratory, notes that his team pioneered the technology in the 2011 Volt battery, which was licensed for manufacture by Korean chemical giant LG Chem.
Perhaps the most encouraging facet of the Volt and its overly large, short-range, too-expensive ($10,000) lithium-ion battery pack is Isaacs’ lament that researchers have until now failed miserably in producing an air-cathode battery. If this technology could be conquered, it would multiply tenfold the storage capacity of long-life batteries — from Volt’s 35-mile range to 350 miles.
Isaacs limns the R&D problem: “But first, we have to discover a way to make a battery that ‘breathes in’ oxygen from the air to discharge electricity, then ‘breathes out’ again to recharge. Then we have to convert those discoveries into battery systems that can be affordably mass produced, we have to put these technologies into cars that consumers want to buy, and we have to do it all before our international competitors catch up.”
This tall order shrinks in the light of one glowing, indisputable reality. The United States, over the years, has proven better at accomplishing this sort of grand technological leap than anyone else on earth. For a century, we have been the world’s engineers.