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Flick on a cell phone or a laptop computer and you’re probably drawing power from a lithium-ion battery. They are lightweight and rechargeable, but the material is expensive and toxic. Those problems, which don’t much matter for small cells that juice portable electronics, could become a huge headache as auto makers look to large lithium batteries to power electric cars.

A team of researchers at Brookhaven National Laboratory led by chemist Hung Sui Lee has developed a boron-based additive that lets them use a cheaper, less toxic lithium salt in the batteries. This salt, lithium fluoride (LiF), has not been an option until now because it does not dissolve well in the organic solvents used in the batteries. The boron compound helps LiF break apart into ions that can carry charge. Several companies-including lithium battery-maker Gould, based in Eastlake, Ohio-have expressed interest in licensing the technology. If development pans out, the new batteries may be on the market in two to three years.

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