We Can Make the Battery Better, Stronger, Faster
Two new breakthroughs provide potential for much faster charging, increased range in hybrid vehicles
What's better on a Friday afternoon than some cold, hard science? Well, there may be a few things ... but this is nanoscale physics and advanced engineering, man! Party time!
In any case, we'll keep it short and sweet (and not too technical). Here's what's happening:
MIT geeks have found a way to re-engineer battery material for super-rapid charging. Basically, rechargeable lithium batteries have very high energy densities; i.e. they can store enough power to let you talk on a cell phone or drive an electric motor for a long time. The trade-off is that the power rates are slow -- meaning that gaining energy (charging) and discharging energy (accelerating said vehicle) also take a long time.
At first, scientists assumed the lithium ions used to carry a charge (along with electrons) simply moved slowly, but it turns out this isn't the case. The team from MIT realized that, in fact, these ions move quite rapidly into the material if they're not impeded at the surface -- but often they are, creating a sort of traffic jam, with sluggish ions waiting to get into a "tunnel" and carry a charge into the material.
The team created a sort of beltway that funnels the ions across the surface in an orderly fashion (like a beltway around a city), and whenever they come across a "tunnel" into the material, the ions are instantly diverted. The result: a cell that can conceivably charge in 10 to 20 seconds, rather than six minutes. Obviously, this has huge ramifications for electric vehicles; think of recharging your car's battery in minutes, rather than hours. Even better: It's simply re-engineering existing battery material, meaning current manufacturing processes wouldn't need to undergo a major overhaul.
Stanford University, Hanyang University (South Korea), and South Korean company LG Chem have collaborated to create silicon nanotubes that could increase the storage power of lithium-ion batteries tenfold. By replacing the traditional graphite electrodes in lithium-ion batteries with a silicon anode, the amount of energy that can be stored increases dramatically -- up to 10 times more by weight.
The problem, though, is that the volume of the silicon also increases dramatically as it stores the extra levels of lithium. Because silicon is brittle, the mechanical strain this creates often results in cracking. The solution is a construction of the anode on the nanoscale, using silicon nanotubes; the vastly increased surface area increases stability and reduces mechanical strain. And, like the lithium-ion power rate breakthrough noted above, this technology -- which would vastly increase the available range of an electric motor and allow hybrids to run in all-electric mode for much longer -- wouldn't require a huge manufacturing infrastructure overhaul.
(h/t to reader Jake Edmonson for the MIT news.)
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