December 05, 2006
Battery Researchers Disagree On Achievable Car Battery Capacity

Kevin Bullis of MIT's Technology Review reports on views of battery researchers on the feasibility of powering cars with batteries.

Stanley Whittingham, inventor of the first commercial lithium-ion battery and professor of chemistry, materials science, and engineering at the State University of New York, at Binghamton, says current research should make electric vehicles practical--with the following caveat: they'll probably be used for trips of less than 100 miles. Those who want 300-to-400-mile ranges typical of gasoline-powered vehicles will need to turn to plug-in hybrids: vehicles much like today's gas-electric hybrids, but with a much larger battery pack that makes it possible to go longer on electric power, thereby saving gas. These batteries could be partly charged by an onboard gas engine, but also by electricity from a wall socket.

Whittingham says that while he expects battery capacity to double, it's not going to get much better than that.

But electrochemist Peter Bruce of University of Saint Andrews in Scotland thinks his experimental lithium ion battery that combines with oxygen to form lithium peroxide could more than quadruple current battery capacity.

Based on his experiments, Bruce says that such batteries could store as much as 600 to 700 milliamp hours per gram (more than four times that of batteries today) while maintaining the ability to be charged and discharged for many cycles.

Even 100 mile range would make electric cars practical for many. But to maximize the convenience of electric cars it helps to have a property that makes it easy to run a power cord to a car. Someone who parks in their own garage could plug in their car pretty easily. But someone who parks on the street and walks to an apartment will find home charging hard to do. Those who can't easily charge at home will need faster charging and higher energy storage capacity batteries to make pure electric cars practical for them.

MIT battery research Donald Sadoway (whose battery research I've previously reported on) told Technology Review in an interview in October 2005 that hydrogen fuel cells are not going to compete with batteries for vehicle power.

DS: I don't believe in fuel cells for portable power. I think it's a dumb idea. The good news is: they burn hydrogen with oxygen to produce electricity, and only water vapor is the byproduct. The bad news is: you have to deal with molecular hydrogen gas, and that's what's stymieing the research and in my opinion is always going to stymie the research.

That's why I don't work on fuel cells. Where's the infrastructure? Where are we going to get hydrogen from? Hydrogen is a molecule, it's H2. To break it apart, to get H+, you've got to go from H2 to H, and that covalent bond is very strong. To break that bond you have to catalyze the reaction, and guess what the catalyst is? It's noble metals -- platinum and palladium. Have you seen the price of platinum? Lithium [for lithium ion batteries] is expensive. But it's not like platinum. Lithium right now is probably $40 a pound. Platinum is $500 an ounce. If I could give the fuel-cell guys platinum for $40 a pound, they would be carrying me around on their shoulders until the day I die.

Sadoway thinks electric cars with longer ranges are within the realm of the possible.

Batteries suitable for electric cars would make a huge difference in our energy future. Why? Simple: Batteries would allow all energy sources that can generate electricity to power vehicles. Nuclear, solar, wind, geothermal, coal will all become energy sources for transportation when batteries improve enough to make electric cars competitive.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2006 December 05 11:34 PM  Energy Batteries

John said at December 6, 2006 4:18 AM:

Not that this is definitive, but Dr. Bruce is significantly younger than Dr. Whittington. The Arthur C. Clarke quote comes to mind:

Arthur C. Clarke (1917-)

When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is
possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something
is impossible, he is very probably wrong.
_Profiles of the Future_ (1962; rev. 1973)
``Hazards of Prophecy: The Failure of Imagination''
Clarke's First Law
On which he commented:

Perhaps the adjective ``elderly'' requires definition. In physics,
mathematics, and astronautics it means over thirty; in the other
disciplines, senile decay is sometimes postponed to the forties.
There are, of course, glorious exceptions; but as every researcher
just out of college knows, scientists of over fifty are good for
nothing but board meetings, and should at all costs be kept out of the
_Profiles of the Future_ (1962; rev. 1973)
``Hazards of Prophecy: The Failure of Imagination''

Mike Anderson said at December 6, 2006 4:46 AM:

So I guess this ( is just so much hype?

In theory, there is no difference between theory and practice. But, in practice, there is.
-- Jan L. A. van de Snepscheut

aa2 said at December 6, 2006 5:16 AM:

Good quotes John.

Some factors...

Families usually have two cars.. so one could be all electric for daily errands, commutes and so forth. While the other could be a plug-in hybrid usually going all electric.. but ready to go on the ICE for when the family decides to take a trip.

Even if electric vehicles arent' quite as long range as ICE vehicles.. (which considering youc an add additional fuel tanks to ICE vehicles makes it hard to match).. The future batteries are going to be able to charge as rapidly as you can fill up the tank with gas. So you would just have to stop for 'fuel' a little more often.

I of course believe there won't be such limits on batteries in the long run. But there will be years during the gradual switch to an all electric fleet where people have to think about the factors like I just mentioned when deciding what vehicle is right for them.

Sumyung Guy said at December 6, 2006 6:19 AM:

Not to dis Stanley Whittington, but Altairnano is already doing better than 100 miles:

"Altairnano offers two nano-Titanate battery pack configurations: a 35 KWh and a 70 KWh NanoSafe pack. The 35 KWh NanoSafe pack can be recharged in less than 10 minutes, with the appropriate battery charger and provides sufficient power and energy for a fleet vehicle to travel up to 130 miles. The 70 KWh NanoSafe pack can also be recharged in less than 10 minutes, with the appropriate battery charger and provides sufficient power and energy for a full sized SUV to travel up to 250 miles. Altairnano is on track to deliver ten 35 KWh NanoSafe battery packs in the fourth quarter to Phoenix Motorcars and is prepared to supply additional 35 KWh NanoSafe battery packs to support Phoenix upcoming SUT market introduction build in early 2007 and SUV 35 KWh and 70 KWh battery packs in the later part 2007. "

The URL to the post on "The Energy Blog" is:

Altairnano ain't the only guys coming out with stuff like this.

Wolf-Dog said at December 6, 2006 7:01 AM:

So far the above discussion is only about Lithium batteries... Maybe psychologically we became used to assuming that only Lithium batteries will be feasible in the future. I am sure there will be many other batteries or energy storage devices in the future. The nanotechnology phenomenon will almost certainly increase the energy density dramatically. Note that the Altair batteries already solve the danger of explosion, and also the and this new battery can be re-charged many thousands of times, making it economical.

Joe said at December 6, 2006 8:22 AM:

Of course they are forgetting ultracapacitors and superflywheels which both promise a higher energy density and less losses. Also CNTs will probably boost current battery capacity.

DV8 2XL said at December 6, 2006 8:45 AM:

The zebra battery, invented in 1985 by Johan Coetzer working at the CSIR in Pretoria, South Africa,
(hence the name zebra battery, for the Zeolite Battery Research Africa Project) has been under development for almost 20 years.The technical name for the battery is Na-NiCl2 battery.

The ZEBRA battery has an attractive specific energy and power (90 Wh/kg and 150 W/kg). The liquid electrolyte freezes at 157 C, and the normal operating temperature range is 270350 C. The β-alumina solid electrolyte that has been developed for this system is very stable, both to sodium metal and the sodium chloroaluminate. Lifetimes of over 1500 cycles and five years have been demonstrated with full-sized batteries, and over 3000 cycles and eight years with 10- and 20-cell modules. Vehicles powered by ZEBRA batteries have covered more than 2 million km.

Wolf-Dog said at December 6, 2006 10:03 AM:

"The zebra battery, invented in 1985 by Johan Coetzer working at the CSIR in Pretoria, South Africa,
(hence the name zebra battery, for the Zeolite Battery Research Africa Project) has been under development for almost 20 years.The technical name for the battery is Na-NiCl2 battery."

I did not know that the Zebra battery was invented in South Africa, but it seems that a Swiss company is perfecting Zebra in such a way that in London they are already beginning to use 7.5 ton Zebra battery powered trucks which can carry 4 tons of merchandise, with a range of 130 miles. Apparently this is for the London region only, but it is a major achievement because the article below, says that: "It costs just 25 a week to recharge the battery as opposed to 110 spent on fuel for a diesel vehicle."

hamerhokie said at December 6, 2006 10:06 AM:

It would be very entertaining for someone to interview Dr. W on videotape and, just as he makes the 'limited to 100 mile range' comment, have a Tesla drive by.

bigelow said at December 6, 2006 3:23 PM:

Any comments about how the new batteries behave in winter conditions, say in Canada?

hibbs02 said at December 7, 2006 5:05 AM:

This may sound like a funny thing to say, but I think China may be the leader that eventually kicks the battery powered car into common usage. I recently found out that all of the cabs, and boy are there lots of cabs, are mandated by law to run on natural gas to decrease pollution. Once battery technology gets to where it is realistic to use them for transportation I expect to see China just wave its fingers and mandate the switch over as they are indeed concerned with pollution (I know this because its what all the college students want to talk about and they only get this excited when the propaganda machine pushes them there.)

Since economy of scale requires that millions of things to be manufactured to get good prices, if China does like I'm suggesting they will be the ones that usher in the battery age to common usage as the price for batteries and quick charging stations will be pushed down to affordability. And as luck would have it they are the ones we would have bought them all from anyway! :-)

BTW: Battery powered bikes/scooters are already very very common here. I wish I had money, I'd start importing them into the US and kick off the whole craze with a good infomercial. You can get a very nice battery powered scooter for less than $300 here.

Here's a pic with a cute model:

and Honda's VERY sporty/snazzy version:

monroe said at December 16, 2007 7:43 PM:

I doubt if there will be much progress in the batteries and mechanical configuration of EVs until we see competition on the track.

Prior to the mid 90s computer technology was driven primarily by the needs of the military and NASA. After the cold war ended, the technology stagnated until the computer gaming industry began to push the envelope. The entertainment dollar began to fund research to attain better graphics, faster processors, etc.

Similarly, it will be the funds generated by the entertainment hungry race fans that will ultimately fund battery research, motor efficiency, lightweight composites, etc.

We desperately need a body like F1 or NASCAR to get involved. Until then, we will continue to wish for longer range, quicker charging, lower cost and more space.

Earth College said at May 22, 2008 9:48 AM:

I don't believe that racing is going to go electric any time soon, although, it was Ray Harroun who won the Indy 500 in 1911 with his invention of the rear view mirror that brought about that revolution. What would we do without innovative thinking like that?

Did you know that in 2006 Subaru developed a whole fleet of electric cars? They brought 2 to New York this March. Check out this story and other sustainable education information at our website.

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