Bobreski battery research

Battery research at Sandia Labs.

I can’t live without you

I really can’t live without you

You are my battery

— Hong Jin-young

Batteries are advancing. The Electric Vehicles market will dominate over gas engines in just 10 years. Even big semis will be battery operated. Soon we won’t be able to live without batteries. That is good news. Although Jimmy Carter initiated this research 40 years ago, America wanted oil and gas and we didn’t care how we got it as long as we got it. Now after several terrorist attacks, a war, and endless conflicts — all of which cost the U.S. trillions with no resolve — we are finally moving into the future.

America apparently is only moved by the markets, not a vision like Carter’s that would have avoided all the aforementioned conflict because we would not have needed as much oil. Then-Department of Energy Chair James Schlesinger was correct when he praised Carter’s initiative, but he said the American people would not accept it.

Battery development is tedious and requires much experimentation even today. Had we started that experimentation 40 years ago, the ideal electrodes and solid electrolyte, as President Carter legislated, most likely would have been ready for production 20 years ago.

What needs to be done?

The following factors are necessary to make the perfect battery: safety, weight, materials, short charge times, infrastructure and finally the lifetime of the battery itself.

Safety is number one because batteries can explode or catch on fire. Weight, because batteries are a significant portion of EV weight, less weight means more efficiency. Materials, because the expanded use of lithium will create problems similar to the way oil does; although the mining process is relatively safe, lithium is a limited resource. Charging times must be reduced.

As for infrastructure, there was this idea of a battery transfer station where the “station” would have a technician remove the discharged battery and then replace it with a charged one. This would take about 5-10 minutes in theory. However, different cars would require different batteries. So charging time is the feature that needs to be drastically reduced. The issue of charging stations could have a relatively simple cure — just about every big-box hardware store, restaurant, convenience store could have a charging station. Shopping malls may actually see this as a customer service. All that is involved is installing a safe electric distribution system. Battery voltages in EVs can run as high as 800 volts. There is an obvious inherit danger in this. There are a number of work arounds but maybe a discussion for another article.

Expediting the battery research

Today Toyota is making an AI artificial intelligence machine that will expedite testing of materials to make the perfect battery. The Toyota Research Institute claims there are 50 million organic and inorganic specimens that could fit as the chemistry needed for advanced batteries.

Many universities are studying materials for fast charge times. Professor Yan Yao of the University of Houston is conducting studies on using magnesium for electrodes. Magnesium is abundant and easily extracted from seawater. The DOE is conducting studies on nickel to replace cobalt in the current lithium ion battery electrode. Cobalt is toxic and the mining is done by hand. Treatment of the workers particularly in the Congo has received scrutiny worldwide. According to the Washington Post, companies are now distancing themselves rom Congolese based companies. This is a challenge as 60% of the cobalt currently mined is from the Congo, a resource rich, economically poor, politically challenged country. By developing a more common material based electrode, Sandia Laboratories are conducting research into improving battery charge times and longevity.

QuantumScape: Are they already there?

Currently, private investment is on the rise and the future of EV is here. As you may recall last month’s column talked about SPAC companies, aka the blank check companies. Late last month, a SPAC company called QuantumScape announced a revolutionary step in battery design called the solid state battery. The company has the robust backing of Microsoft and Volkswagen. Its latest report states that its battery cannot catch on fire, has a super fast charge rate of 15 minutes and has a much longer battery life, up to an 80% longer range.

The battery also is light and easily customized, allowing auto manufacturers to customize and maximize the space on their vehicles. However the manufacturer is not saying when this battery will be in production. The current available time frame is 2025 for Volkswagen production models.

What could happen in those five years?

Anyone knows that five years in technology today is like 100 years in Edison’s time. Interestingly enough, Edison’s nickel iron battery is still the longest lasting battery to date. Many other companies are working diligently on that next big break. SourcePower is one of them. The company doesn’t want to reveal its secrets but believes that its approach to a solid state battery will rival QuantumScape.

In conclusion: Caveat Emptor

There is a lot of secrecy in the battery technology world. It’s a holy grail to be sure. Whoever has the “magic formula” or Merlin’s sword will succeed beyond his/her wildest dreams. In my humble opinion, we need to be cautious about the whole affair in the EV market. We are essentially gambling on the future. Batteries must be available and so should their components. Batteries should not be made of a material that will be depleted or be in the hands of an adversary.

Will these companies truly be able to deliver? Time will tell. Tesla, which relies on Panasonic for its batteries, is behind in its attempts to manufacture the batteries in-house. Its lackluster Battery Day has yet to produce the million mile battery. It’s easy to criticize but that is not my point, concern is. This brings to mind the bio tech start up Theranos and its promises. With the promise of the new batteries, the path of the automobile is in the balance.

Edison said in “The Electrician” of Feb. 17, 1883: “The storage battery is, in my opinion, a catchpenny, a sensation, a mechanism for swindling the public by stock companies. The storage battery is one of those peculiar things which appeals to the imagination, and no more perfect thing could be desired by stock swindlers than that very selfsame thing. ... Just as soon as a man gets working on the secondary battery it brings out his latent capacity for lying.”

The future is bright, let’s hope the light stays on.

James Bobreski is a process control engineer who has been in the field of electric power production for 43 years. His “Alternate Energy” column runs monthly. He is the owner of Synchronicity1 LLC in Penn Yan, which is dedicated to designing a digital farm for independent farm operation. He has several inventions, namely a digital wire sorter, portable scoreboard, axis solar panel drive and a ubiquitously mountable LED light module. He lives with his life partner, Sherry, in Penn Yan.

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