‘Disappearing’ Batteries To Power 21st Century Vehicles

Dr Johanna Xu and Leif Asp, scientists from Chalmers University in Sweden, examine a newly manufactured structural battery cell

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Dr Johanna Xu and Leif Asp, scientists from Chalmers University in Sweden, examine a newly manufactured structural battery cell

‘Disappearing’ Batteries To Power 21st Century Vehicles

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As fast as the world is moving toward electric-powered vehicles the technology that stores electric power is rapidly changing too – so much so that heavy, bulky batteries may soon disappear as a technology of the past.

With the switch from fossil fuel to renewable energy for our power, the world sits on the edge of one of the greatest technological revolutions it has ever known.

Coal and petro-carbon generated power will continue to exist for a few decades more but the world is already making the move to solar, wind and hydro-power at an unprecedented rate.

More and more scientific innovation is concentrated on improving these technologies to make devices, smaller, cheaper, more efficient and easier to handle.

And now scientists at the Chalmers University in Gothenburg, Sweden, have developed a “massless” battery that will can not only power cars, planes, trucks and all manner of automobiles but is also ten times as efficient as previous battery technologies of this kind.

The batteries that power today’s electric cars and bykes are so big and heavy that they make up a large part of the vehicle’s weight. At the same time, these batteries are not part of the load-bearing structure of the vehicle.

electric-powered bykes

But the researchers at Chalmers have developed a new structural battery that contains carbon fibre and simultaneously serves as an electrode, conductor and load-bearing material that can become part of a car’s structure. For example, it could be used to make a car body AND store energy.

This breakthrough paves the way for ‘massless” energy storage in vehicles and other technology. In fact, the discovery’s potential as a technological game-changer is almost limitless.

The big change is that the weight and bulk of a battery essentially disappear when they becomes a part of the structure. This type of multifunctional battery could significantly reduce the weight of an electric vehicle, contributing to better efficiency and power consumption.

The first attempt to make a structural battery was made as early as 2007, but it has so far proven difficult to manufacture batteries with both good electrical and mechanical properties.

But now the development has taken a real step forward, with researchers from Chalmers, in collaboration with KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm, presenting a structural battery with properties that far exceed anything yet seen, in terms of electrical energy storage, stiffness and strength.

Its multifunctional performance is ten times higher than previous structural battery prototypes.

The battery has an energy density of 24 Wh/kg, meaning approximately 20 per cent capacity compared to comparable lithium-ion batteries currently available. But since the weight of the vehicles can be greatly reduced, less energy will be required to drive an electric car, for example, and lower energy density also results in increased safety. And with a stiffness of 25 GPa, the structural battery can really compete with many other commonly used construction materials.

The new battery has a negative electrode made of carbon fibre, and a positive electrode made of a lithium iron phosphate-coated aluminium foil. They are separated by a fibreglass fabric, in an electrolyte matrix.

Despite their success in creating a structural battery ten times better than all previous ones, the researchers did not choose the materials to try and break records – rather, they wanted to investigate and understand the effects of material architecture and separator thickness.

“Previous attempts to make structural batteries have resulted in cells with either good mechanical properties, or good electrical properties. But here, using carbon fibre, we have succeeded in designing a structural battery with both competitive energy storage capacity and rigidity,” explains Leif Asp, Professor at Chalmers and leader of the project.

Moreover, this discovery is now the foundation for a new project financed by the Swedish National Space Agency that aims to improve the battery’s performance even yet further. The aluminium foil will be replaced with carbon fibre as a load-bearing material in the positive electrode, providing both increased stiffness and energy density.

The fibreglass separator will be replaced with an ultra-thin variant, which will give a much greater effect – as well as faster charging cycles. The new project is expected to be completed within two years.

Leif Asp, who also leads this new project, estimates that such a battery could reach an energy density of 75 Wh/kg and a stiffness of 75 GPa which would make the battery about as strong as aluminium, but with a comparatively much lower weight.

“The next generation structural battery has fantastic potential. If you look at consumer technology, it could be quite possible within a few years to manufacture smartphones, laptops or electric bicycles that weigh half as much as today and are much more compact”, says Leif Asp.

“We are really only limited by our imaginations here. We have received a lot of attention from many different types of companies in connection with the publication of our scientific articles in the field. There is understandably a great amount of interest in these lightweight, multifunctional materials.”

Above image: an electric-powered Himo byke.

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