The amount of research being done into better batteries for electric cars is perhaps the clearest indication of how high the stakes are in the car world. Breakthrough after breakthrough comes from labs around the world, and the latest is among the most impressive: a new anode material that can increase a battery’s range twofold while greatly accelerating charging times.
The news comes from the Center for Energy Storage Research at the Korea Institute of Science and Technology. A team of scientists from the center succeeded in developing a silicon anode to replace the graphite used currently in EV batteries, greatly improving their performance.
silicon is not a new material for the battery-making industry. It has a much greater energy storage capacity than graphite—ten times as much, according to the news release of the KIST—but it is a lot less stable than graphite. This means that silicon, unlike graphite, expands and shrinks quickly during charge-discharge cycles, which affects that impressive storage capacity and shortens the life of the battery.
The KIST researchers solved this problem by drying the material. Literally. They mixed silicon and corn starch with water and then heated the mixture up using “a simple thermal process used for frying food” to seal the result, which was a carbon-silicon compound. The compound has displayed four times the energy storage capacity of graphite anodes. It has also made it possible to charge an EV battery to 80 percent in just five minutes. And it’s eco-friendly.
"We were able to develop carbon-silicon composite materials using common, everyday materials and simple mixing and thermal processes with no reactors," the lead researcher, Hun-Gi Jung said. "The simple processes we adopted and the composites with excellent properties that we developed are highly likely to be commercialized and mass-produced. The composites could be applied to lithium-ion batteries for electric vehicles and energy storage systems (ESSs)."
This last statement makes the breakthrough different from most others: their authors tend to be guarded in their optimism and with a good reason. Taking an innovation from the lab to the market doesn’t always work out. But if that carbon-silicon compound that the KIST researchers developed can indeed be commercialized quickly, it could do wonders for the EV industry.
A lot of research in the field seems to focus on new electrode materials and new electrolytes to make the batteries more reliable, cheaper, and—the Achilles heel of EVs—faster charging. German scientists, for example, recently developed a new electrode coating process that lowers the cost of the whole battery while boosting its energy density. Other researchers are experimenting with alternatives to lithium as an electrolyte and electrode component to improve on the dominant tech.
While the breakthroughs make headlines, the evolution in lithium-ion batteries continues without much fanfare but with impressive outcomes. A BloombergNEF study recently revealed that the cost of an EV battery pack has fallen from $1,000 per kWh a decade ago to between $156 and $200 per kWh today. This is still not as cheap as internal combustion engine cars, but it is much closer to the cost parity target, which is $100 per kWh.
In the meantime, energy density has been improving, which means the range has been growing. Tesla’s latest car to hit the market, the Model Y, has a range of up to 315 miles on a single charge.
It’s all good news, it seems, even if global EV sales are slowing down. All large carmakers are ready with a lineup of electric models to respond to emerging demand that all hope will flourish. There remains only one problem, then, over the long term. EV batteries can’t last forever. There will be millions of these ready for recycling in just a decade if sales projections materialize. And recycling costs money, too.
“What still needs to percolate through to the industry and consumers is that the end of life, whatever it is, will come at a cost, and that has to be incorporated into the selling price,” the CEO of Belgian chemicals producer Umicore, Marc Grynberg, said last year. “There’s a fee to be paid.”
By Irina Slav for Oilprice.com
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