Electric cars: put a battery in your roof

Feb 15, 2010 by Boris Cambreleng
A sample showing the insides of a lithium-ion battery is pictured in Tokyo, at Toyota showroom. Lithium-ion batteries used in the current generation of plug-in vehicles are not only heavy, which adds to energy consumption, but also depend on dwindling supplies of the metal lithium, whose prices have risen steadily.

A nanoscale material developed in Britain could one day yield wafer-thin cellphones and light-weight, long-range electric cars powered by the roof, boot and doors, researchers have reported.

For now, the new technology -- a patented mix of carbon fibre and polymer resin that can charge and release electricity just like a regular battery -- has not gone beyond a successful laboratory experiment.

But if scaled-up, it could hold several advantages over existing energy sources for hybrid and , according to the scientists at Imperial College London who developed it.

Lithium-ion batteries used in the current generation of plug-in vehicles are not only heavy, which adds to , but also depend on dwindling supplies of the metal lithium, whose prices have risen steadily.

The new material -- while expensive to make -- is entirely synthetic, which means production would not be limited by availability of natural resources.

Another plus: conventional batteries need to generate juice, a process which causes them to degrade over time and gradually lose the capacity to hold a charge.

The carbon-polymer composite does not depend on chemistry, which not only means a longer life but a quicker charge as well.

Because the material is composed of elements measured in billionths of a metre, "you don't compromise the of the fibers," explained Emile Greenhalgh, an engineer at Imperial College and one of the inventors.

As hard a steel, it could in theory double as the body of the vehicle, cutting the weight by up to a third.

The Tesla Roadster, a luxury electric car made in the United States, for example, weighs about 1,200 kilos (2,650 pounds), more than a third of which is accounted for by batteries, which turn the scales at a hefty 450 kilos (990 pounds). The vehicle has a range of about 300 kilometers (185 miles) before a recharge is needed.

"With our material, we would ultimately lose that 450 kilos (990 pounds)," Greenhalgh said in an interview. "That car would be faster and travel further."

Vehicles with bodies crafted from the new material would likewise shed weight because it is four time lighter than steel, while remaining as strong and stiff.

"It is the sort of thing you find in tennis rackets or fishing rods -- a carbon fibre composite," Greenhalgh said.

"We aim to increase the surface area of the fibres as much as possible without degrading the mechanical properties. The larger the surface, the more electrical charge they can store."

The European Union (EU) announced last week that it would sink 3.4 million euros (4.6 million dollars) over three years into developing the new technology, with Imperial College coordinating a project spread over nine companies and institutes in Britain, Sweden, Germany and Greece.

Swedish car manufacturer Volvo has said it might build a demonstration panel into an existing electric car prototype.

Within three years, the researchers expect shave 15 percent off the weight of a car, and in five to six years, be able to integrate the material into the body.

But it will take a decade before the new material could fully replace existing batteries, Greenhalgh cautioned.

One of the question marks is cost.

Carbon fibre is a lot more expensive than steel, but mass production should bring down costs dramatically, he said.

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User comments : 10

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SiBorg
4.5 / 5 (2) Feb 15, 2010
It is great to see that energy storage research is getting the attention it desperately needs and that such interesting progress is being made.

The article seems a little misleading in suggesting that it is a battery technology. The patent says it's a super capacitor. An energy density figure would be good to know too.
dk2009
not rated yet Feb 15, 2010
"With our material, we would ultimately lose that 450 kilos (990 pounds)." So does that mean this is "ultimately" pie-in-the-sky stuff like fusion energy and there was really no reason to print this fantasy article, or is this technology really working in a demonstrable way? And sure, carbon fiber is lighter than Li-ion but how MUCH of this material is needed to equal the capacity of a comparable sized Li-ion battery? That is, how many cubic centimeters of this compares to the same cubic centimeters of Li-ion?
John_balls
1 / 5 (1) Feb 15, 2010
Lithium is not in decline.
david_42
not rated yet Feb 15, 2010
The only way this "would not be limited by availability of natural resources" is if it was made of something unnatural, like unicorn horn.
Bonkers
not rated yet Feb 15, 2010
The total amount of lithium recoverable from global reserves has been estimated at 35 million tonnes.
- should be OK for a while

Oh, and what's this? ...
"conventional batteries need chemical reactions to generate juice"

Oh, ok, just another mindless folksy-ism.
ricarguy
1 / 5 (1) Feb 15, 2010
As a rough rule of thumb, present day super-capacitors have about 10% of the energy density of modern Li-ion batteries, which in turn is a small fraction of the energy density of a liter of gasoline or diesel. Without real indication of an improvement over existing technology, I think "DK" above is right about this being pie-in-the-sky. If their material is patented already, why wouldn't they provide some real numbers unless it's nothing yet to be proud of? The battery taking the form of the body panel was promised with mm thin, Li-polymer battery technology too, some years back.

This article is more of an announcement that someone got a nice little EU gov't grant. One can't really have much more of an opinion of it since we are told so little of what it is. We'll see what they come up with after they spend a few more years and a few more million dollars trying to improve and make their development practical.

fixer
not rated yet Feb 15, 2010
Printable batteries? Why not print them on the back of a printable solar cell, Too obvious?
baudrunner
1 / 5 (1) Feb 16, 2010
So the car is destined to become a capacitor, and we will be sitting right in the middle of a powerful electro-magnetic field when we drive them. I think I'll stay with my ten-speed. They're just so much better for your health, and on so many levels.
bmcghie
not rated yet Feb 20, 2010
^ Maybe, but I doubt you could charge your railgun capacitors nearly as quickly. Think of the speed of your commute, if all the other cars were blown off the the road ahead of you!

Heh heh. Kidding, Kidding.
PinkElephant
not rated yet Feb 22, 2010
Imagine such a car in a collision with a conventional gas-powered one: gasoline vapors, plus massive electric discharge. Yay, fireworks!