New Battery Technologies to Push the Limits of Efficiency and Performance

It’s funny to think that at the beginning of the 20th century, when cars were still in their infancy, that electric propulsion first dominated the market. Back in those days they were doing it with lead-acid batteries, and needless to say, the performance of internal combustion engines won dominance over the market.

The proliferation of this dirty technology has had widespread consequences on the health of our planet, and at this point America is locked in, with almost its entire transportation sector being completely dependent on burning fossil fuels.

Unlike many other parts of the world, our populace is more spread out, and certainly the automobile could be considered directly responsible for the creation of suburban living spaces.

Although big oil has held its grip on the American mindset for years, that is now beginning to change. Like they say, necessity is the mother of invention, and although it may be unfortunate that things have already been taken so far out of hand, what began as a ground swell and fringe movement now has support from an ever increasingly large portion of the general public, scientists, government, and major corporations.

We still face a large uphill battle, but the fact that we are now seeing fully electric vehicles entering the commercial market is a sure sign that we can win this fight.

In order to win over the general public though, we’re going to have to do even better than this currently upcoming generation of electric vehicles. They have to be able to compete with internal combustion engines in terms of range, performance, and convenience before we’ll see large scale adaptation. Although some smaller companies like Tesla Motors boast phenomenal performance like 0-60mph in less than 4 seconds, a top speed of 130mph, and a range of 300 miles, at $100,000 these vehicles are well outside the reach of the average consumer. Demand will increase though based on two major factors, that political tensions and dwindling supplies will continue to push the cost of oil higher and higher, and that new technologies will continue to increase the performance of electric vehicles.

Although there has been little change to the basic chemistry of batteries, new technologies that increase their capacity and efficiency are constantly being developed. Among these new technologies are carbon nanotubes, phase change materials, and low power electronic memory. In this article we discuss exactly what these new technologies are and how they will help battery technology to finally rival the performance of internal combustion engines.

Carbon nanotubes, like the name implies are cylindrical structures of carbon atoms at the atomic scale. Although their discovery was brought to light to the scientific community in the early 90’s it wasn’t until the mid 2000’s that mass scale production techniques were developed. Although still quite expensive, as the demand for batteries using this technology increases the price will come down. The way in which this technology is helping us to make better batteries is by increasing the effective surface area of the batteries electrodes. This is accomplished by depositing the nanotubes on the surface of the electrode, thereby making it more like a shag carpet texture as opposed to something smooth like linoleum. This same technique is being used in the production of capacitors, which are being dubbed ultracapacitors.

One of the limits of regenerative braking technology is the rate at which the battery can be charged. The electric generator is able to produce power much faster than the battery can absorb it, so it is likely that we’ll see hybridized battery systems in the future that use a bank of ultracapacitors to buffer the input to the battery and capture a larger percentage of the power produced during braking.

There are also inefficiencies in the electronic regulators that govern the charging of the battery. Each battery module contains an onboard computer that is used to monitor the batteries state and perform this regulation. The current non-volatile memory technology that is used for this is flash, and it’s horribly inefficient. While a passive technology like the memristor promises to fix this type of inefficiency, as a proprietary technology owned by HP it has failed to garner any kind of widespread acceptance.

Enter PCM technology. Although you may have never heard of phase change materials, you’re likely to have come across them in your everyday life. They’re the technology responsible for heating pads, and already have widespread use in industrial applications. The difference between these types of materials and others lies in what is called the heat of fusion. This is energy associated with phase change from say a solid to liquid state, etc. These materials hold and release large amounts of energy during these phase changes which give them unique applications in industry.

Now scientists are taking advantage of these properties to use these materials for the storage of data. An engineering challenge for making these functional has been to decrease the power needed to change the state of the material and change a bit from 1 to 0 or vice versa. Now scientists are combining this technology with carbon nanotubes to produce memory devices that outperform flash both in terms of energy efficiency and speed. Essentially, by reducing the size of these circuits from standard wire sizes down to nanoscales, scientists have improved the power consumption by 100 fold. This technology promises to extend the time needed between charges for batteries, which will improve the range of electric cars.

Although it’s going to take some time for these new technologies to come to market, they certainly are exciting prospects for modernizing our transportation infrastructure. As it stands, oil is an unsustainable means of powering our vehicles, and while it may take some time for electric cars to become the norm, we don’t really have any other choice.

Bio: Alexis Bonari is a freelance writer and researcher for College Scholarships, where recently she’s been researching human resource management scholarships as well as human services scholarships. Whenever she gets some free time, she enjoys watching a funny movie or curling up with a good book.

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