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A Big Jump in Battery Capacity

If Envia can overcome some key problems, its technology could cut the cost of electric-car batteries in half.
March 1, 2012

Battery packs can cost more than $10,000, which is one of the biggest reasons electric cars cost more than conventional gas-powered cars.

Envia, a startup funded by GM and the U.S. government’s Advanced Research Projects Agency for Energy (ARPA-E), says it has built batteries that store more than twice as much energy as the ones in electric cars now. If the technology comes to fruition, it could halve the cost of batteries—the most expensive part on an electric vehicle.

Much work remains, however, before the batteries can be used in commercial electric vehicles. Among other things, the number of times they can be charged and recharged must be more than doubled.

The technology was highlighted at the annual ARPA-E summit in Washington, D.C., this week, in part to demonstrate the progress in energy technology being made by the Department of Energy, which oversees ARPA-E. The DOE has come under fire after giving loan guarantees to some companies that later declared bankruptcy.

Envia’s technology is based on work originating in the DOE’s Argonne National Lab, which identified a material with a novel microscopic structure that could help improve the storage capacity of one of the battery electrodes.

GM and battery maker LG Chem, which is using some aspects of the technology in the Chevrolet Volt, may incorporate other technology from Argonne in batteries for the next generation of the car. Envia modified the original Argonne technology to get higher energy densities.

Using the Argonne material as a starting point, the researchers systematically tested variations of the material design to help increase its practical operating voltage (a powerful way to improve energy density) and to deal with a known issue with the material: a tendency of one of its components, manganese, to move out of the electrode and dissolve in the battery electrolyte, reducing storage capacity over time. To achieve these goals, the researchers added trace elements to the material and developed coatings to keep the manganese from escaping.

The company then turned its attention to the opposite electrode, which is usually made of graphite. Researchers decided to use silicon, which can store far more energy but typically works for only a short number of charges, since it swells and cracks. Envia addressed these issues by using a porous form of silicon, which is better able to tolerate expansion and contraction, and by mixing the silicon with various forms of carbon, including carbon fiber and graphite. The carbon is meant to provide a path for electrons to take through the material, bridging gaps that form as the silicon cracks. The researchers also had to modify the electrolyte to keep it from breaking down at the high voltage levels seen in the battery cell.

To develop the materials, Envia took the unusual approach of testing new electrode materials in complete batteries, with both electrodes and an electrolyte. Usually researchers test electrode materials in isolation to identify those with promising properties, such as high energy capacity. But sometimes materials that look great on their own are incompatible with electrolytes or other electrodes. On the other hand, some materials that don’t look great on their own may do well when paired with the right electrolyte. So Envia tested batches of 1,500 battery cells—each with a different combination of electrodes and electrolyte—to find the best combinations. (Envia prepares the electrode and electrolyte materials by hand. Wildcat Discovery Technologies, one of Technology Review’s TR50 most innovative companies, uses a robotic system to speed up a similar process.)

After testing small coin-sized cells, Envia built cells large enough for use in electric cars. Each weighs one kilogram and stores 400 watt-hours. Commercial lithium-ion batteries store about 120 to 250 watt-hours per kilogram.

Lower-energy batteries often have safety features that make them attractive for use in cars. Sujeet Kumar, Envia’s president and CTO, says the company’s batteries have passed nail puncture tests, one key test of battery safety.

Because the materials can be made with conventional equipment, they could be relatively easy to commercialize. Kumar says Envia doesn’t plan to manufacture batteries itself, but to license its technology to battery manufacturers or create joint ventures.

But the cells aren’t yet ready for use in electric cars. To last the life of a vehicle, they need to be able to recharge over 1,000 times and still maintain 80 percent of their original storage capacity. The company is still testing the new batteries, but after only 400 charges, they have dropped to 72 percent of capacity, Kumar says. Solving the problem could require substantial improvements to the electrodes. The cells also have to be put through several other tests of performance and safety before they’re qualified for use in vehicles.

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