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New batteries could soothe e-car drivers’ range anxiety

New types of batteries could be on the road in five years. Image: Shutterstock/Olga Besnard
New types of batteries could be on the road in five years. Image: Shutterstock/Olga Besnard

Smart control systems and combination batteries could help give reassurance to range-conscious electric car drivers.

Researchers have found a way to combine the fast-charging batteries used in hybrid cars such as the Toyota Prius with the long-lasting batteries carried by fully electric vehicles such as the ones developed by carmakers including Renault and Tesla.

The EU-funded SuperLIB project has developed a way to intelligently shift the charge between the two types of batteries, and they have conducted simulations which show that the technology could extend the range of electric cars by up to a sixth.

‘Currently … you can use for a full electric vehicle maybe 70 %, maybe 80 % of the stored energy, and we want to extend this to 90 %, 95 % by the combination of the high-energy and high-power parts,’ explained Dr Volker Hennige from engineering company AVL, who coordinates the project.

Environmental credentials

Efforts are also underway to increase the environmental friendliness of electric cars by limiting the amount of raw materials used to build the batteries.  

The EU-funded SOMABAT project, which finished in 2013, developed a new type of lithium battery by creating new materials for the electrodes and electrolyte from sources including agricultural waste products. The new electrolyte material was solid, which greatly reduced the chances of short-circuit and fire and improved the safety of the batteries.

The project also aimed to make 50 % of the materials used in the battery recyclable. Accurec, an industrial partner on the project, designed a bespoke process that could recycle up to 60 % of the battery materials. The project partners are now working to further improve the materials developed during SOMABAT and find other applications of the new chemistries.

What they do is use the long-lasting battery as ‘a big buffer’, while the higher power hybrid-style battery deals with periods of high acceleration and enables faster charging.

This allows for better kinetic energy recovery for increased driving range and extends the battery life of the long-lasting battery.

The group has now completed the hardware implementation of the new battery and will work with their industrial partners Fiat and Volvo to put the fully integrated design into a commercial electric vehicle.

‘Such a phase typically takes three to five years,’ said Dr Hennige.

Iron-air

It’s technology that could be used on the road soon, but there are a number of radical ideas that are still at the development stage which could have a major impact on battery life, including using the reaction of metal with air.

‘This limitation in energy density of the battery means in practice a reduction in the driving range of these vehicles, which is the largest obstacle faced by electric cars today to enter the market,’ explained Dr Alberto García from Technalia, a partner on the NECOBAUT project.

NECOBAUT is looking at incorporating advanced nanomaterials into batteries. Based on the reaction of metal with air, the technique could theoretically enable a battery to store eight times more energy than traditional batteries, although this has not been demonstrated in real-world tests since the design was first trialled in the 1980s.

Batteries convert stored chemical energy into electrical energy by chemical reactions and they can be made from a variety of raw materials, though their basic design is the same. Each cell of a battery (a typical electric vehicle has hundreds of these cells) consists of a positive electrode (a metal compound), an ion conductor (electrolyte) that can be a liquid or solid, and a negative electrode (normally graphite, a form of carbon). 

The team will use metal-based nanomaterials to increase the surface area of the electrodes available for chemical reactions. It is hoped this new approach will take the storage capacity of the batteries closer to their theoretical limit.

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    The first practical electric car is invented by British engineer Thomas Parker, who built on work by innovators in Hungary, the Netherlands and the US. By the turn of the 19th century, almost 40 % of cars in the US are powered by electricity. They are used as taxis in New York City, where their popularity is driven by the lack of pollutants compared to petrol cars.
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    The first land-speed world record is set in an electric car in Paris, France, when Belgian Camille Jenatzy reaches a speed of 66.66 kilometres per hour. Several months later, Jenatzy becomes the first man to break the 100 kilometres per hour barrier in the purpose-built electric car Le Jamais Contente.
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    Henry Ford produces the Model T, which would see off competition from electric cars for the majority of the 20th century. By the end of the First World War in 1918, electric cars plummeted in popularity on both sides of the Atlantic thanks to the increased reliability and range of gasoline-powered cars and the cheap price of petrol.
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    Thanks to a surge in the price of gasoline and the start of the environmental movement, interest in electric and hybrid cars reignites. In 1982 General Electric builds the first modern hybrid with both a gasoline motor and an electric motor, although the first hybrid electric vehicle featuring front-wheel drive, power steering and regenerative braking had been developed by Frenchman Louis Krieger as early as 1903. By the end of the 20th century, hybrid and electric cars are commercially available again.
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    The performance of electric and hybrid cars continues to improve. As concern about resource scarcity and climate change grows, the European Green Vehicles Initiative is launched to promote the development and use of electric vehicles. The initiative aims to get half a million electric and hybrid vehicles on the road in the EU by 2016, with a target of 5 million by 2020.
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