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Plug-in hybrid vehicles stand to be major beneficiaries of futuistic battery research at Argonne National Laboratory. Experts at Argonne predict new batteries will mean a car reach 500 miles per plug-in within the next 20 years.

Argonne Labs battery symposium looks to electric cars with a 500-mile range

by Alex Baumgardner
May 11, 2010

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Alex Baumgardner/MEDILL

Advanced lithium-ion batteries allow scientists at Argonne National Laboratory to run this Toyota Prius on an on-site track for the equivalent of the distance to California without stopping.

What we may need more than new energy is a better way to store what we have.

That was the focus of Argonne National Laboratory’s recent symposium on next-generation batteries.

The recent symposium, Computational Perspectives, drew scientists and engineers from the public and private sector across the world.

While sustainable energy alternatives continue to dominate conversations in environmental and industry circles, Argonne’s battery research offers the promise of electric cars with 500-miles of power, though battery development for them may take another decade.

“We’re in research, and we’re always looking for the next big thing,” said Daniel Abraham, a leading researcher in the field of lithium-ion batteries and materials scientist at Argonne.

During this week’s next generation battery symposium at Argonne, scientists and engineers focused on finding ways to increase the energy stored in a battery with innovative new battery materials – including just plain air.

Advanced batteries would bring longer running times to cell phone and laptops. But one of the biggest beneficiaries of this research could be the electric car. Argonne has tested its lithium-ion battery in a Toyota Prius, running it on an on-site track the equivalent of the distance to California without ever having to stop.

Currently, Argonne’s engineers remain focused on lithium-ion batteries, which have already doubled the capacity of the more common acid based batteries. But through funding granted by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, the lab now has $8.8 million to develop high-performance battery systems, such as lithium-air systems. These new systems could potentially increase battery life and power exponentially.

What makes these battery systems work is the substance used in the battery. Common acid batteries use a water-based conductor but the acid causes the water to decompose quickly, limiting power and lifespan. Lithium-ion and futuristic lithium-air batteries allow for longer battery life and increased voltage because of the components themselves can last longer and allow for higher conductivity.

“The benefit is tremendous” with lithium-air said Dr. Khalil Amine, one of Argonne’s top material scientists. “We’re talking about 10 times more energy. We’re not talking about doubling, which is already a big breakthrough. This is the future.”

It’s grants such as the one from American Recovery that allow Argonne to remain at the forefront of this type of research, said Argonne’s senior accounts manager Jeff Chamberlain. He said it’s what keeps industries relying on government labs for technological advancement and technology transfer.

“It’s different for industry,” Chamberlain said. “For these publicly traded companies that live quarter to quarter, they can’t afford to make this type of investment to solve this type of problem.”

Lithium-air batteries in the early stages of development would compress air and increase a stable reaction surface to generate electrons that deliver stored energy from batteries. 

“It’s intrinsic, it’s not something we design,” Amine said. “Lithium air has almost [the energy] of gasoline. So you can expect 500 miles in a charge with the electric car. Now it’s 100 miles with the Leaf from Nissan, this December.”

Still, these advancements are in the development stages, and won’t likely be seen for at least a decade. But the advancement in technology is only a matter of time. Amine estimated by 2020, approximately 25 percent of the cars on the road will be electric. 

But three major challenges remain, preventing these new battery systems from reaching consumers quickly, Abraham said. The first is advancing the power potential of the battery but safety and cost also need to be addressed.

“One of the complaints of these lithium-ion systems now is that they’re kind of expensive,” Abraham said. “Not many people buy the Prius because it’s expensive. We are doing research to reduce the cost of these batteries.”