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An electronic microscope image of the rod-like nanoparticles formed by the microwave production method. They perform extremely well in low discharge scenarios, but are being tweaked after disappointing performance in rapid discharge scenarios.  (Source: Arumugam Manthiram, University of Texas at Austin )
Could an affordable electronic car be in the future?

Lithium-ion batteries are in high demand, seeing strong growth in the consumer electronics, power tools, and automotive industry.  Lithium-ion batteries are prized for their outstanding energy-to-weight ratios, their lack of memory effect, and their slower charge loss rate than other battery technologies.

The technology is particularly critical to the budding electric car business.  With such companies as Dyson, GM, and Lightning Car Company using the batteries in their upcoming commercial releases the future of the electric car in the short term is riding on lithium-ion technology. 

Unfortunately, the costs of lithium-ion batteries are currently quite high.  An analyst estimated that the much-anticipated Chevy Volt's battery pack would cost nearly $10,000; about a fourth of the total projected cost.  The pressing demand from a variety of industries has fueled lithium-ion prices to rise even higher.

Fortunately relief is in sight, thanks to a processing breakthrough from University of Texas at Austin.  The researchers found a way to possibly transform the long and complicated baking process involved in one of the more common lithium-ion battery materials into a quick and easy process.

Originally, most lithium-ion batteries used lithium cobalt oxide.  Most of the computer industry still relies on this material; however, the automotive industry has turned to lithium iron phosphate, which is considered more attractive as iron is cheaper than cobalt.  It is also safer than the more fire-prone lithium cobalt oxide, and is capable of being crafted to release charge faster.  A downside is it stores slightly less charge.

Companies have invested big in developing and bringing lithium iron phosphate to the market.  A123 Systems, the Watertown, MA startup that is manufacturing the Chevy Volt's battery, has already commercially offered lithium iron phosphate batteries for power tools.  It has managed to raise $148M USD in investment capital to help fund its efforts.

With current technology, the biggest downside to the lithium iron phosphate is the manufacturing.  Currently, the process takes hours of baking at temperatures in excess of 700 °C.  The extra manpower and effort required due to this has meant that Lithium iron phosphate batteries, which should from a materials perspective be much cheaper than lithium cobalt oxide, are actually more expensive than their competitor.

Led by Professor Arumugam Manthiram, a U of T professor of materials engineering, the researchers at U of T examined how a microwave could be used to speed the cooking process.  The results were dramatic.

The team first mixed conventional materials -- lithium hydroxide, iron acetate, and phosphoric acid -- in a solvent.  They then popped the mixture in the microwave for about five minutes, which heated the mix to about 300 °C. 

The process yielded high performing rod shaped nanoparticles of lithium iron phosphate.  The best nanoparticles were found to be approximately 100 nm long and just 25 nm wide.  The small size allows the ion exchange to be performed more easily.  The finished particles were then covered with an electrically conductive polymer doped with sulfonic acid to improve performance.

The new particles performed extremely well in low-discharge scenarios.  The material achieved a capacity of 166 milliamp hours per gram, amazingly close to the 170 milliamp hours per gram theoretical capacity.  High discharge scenarios were not so friendly to the new material, but Professor Manthiram says that will be fixable.  He says new versions have already shown improvement in this metric.

It is unclear exactly how much will be saved using the new method.  With the short time higher production should be possible, and the lower temperatures will reduce energy demands, both effects that should help to lower the cost of production.  Some are skeptical, though; whether the material will save much at all.  Stanley Whittingham a professor of chemistry, materials science, and engineering at the State University of New York, at Binghamton warns that the savings may be offset by the polymer cost and the cost of the changes necessary to the production.

Professor Manthiram is also exploring other lithium ion materials and has developed two key improvements on other materials.  He is working with an Austin, TX based startup, ActaCell to commercialize his tech.  The startup has licensed some of his technology with the help of the $5.58M USD in startup funds in has raised, but declined to specify which technologies or whether the new lithium iron phosphate production technology had been licensed yet.

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RE: Electric is the future
By masher2 (blog) on 7/30/2008 4:31:14 PM , Rating: 3
"His (and other Democrats) arguement was that we wouldn't see an effect from the drilling for 10 years and that we would have solved all our problems by then.

Well, wouldn't you know. The Democrats don't want to drill for oil, again, because we won't see the effect for 10 years"
There are derricks already partially constructed off the Pacific Coast, ones being built when the offshore ban went into effect. Many of those could be pumping within 3 years or less.

In any case, the whole "10 years to results" argument is a red herring. Most of us are planning on being around much longer than 10 years...if we don't solve the problems now, they'll be that much larger a decade from now.

RE: Electric is the future
By 67STANG on 7/30/2008 11:58:49 PM , Rating: 2
Lets not forget that when Clinton vetoed a bill in 1996 that would have allowed oil drilling in ANWR, he said that it would take 10 years to get any kind of impact from the increased oil...

Boy... looking back 12 years later, I'm sure we're all glad he did that. Then again, we all know (now) that Clinton was more of a "instant gratification" kind of guy...

RE: Electric is the future
By JMesserly on 7/31/2008 12:16:40 AM , Rating: 1
You know it is funny. Clinton signed the bill that banned drilling in ANWR and off the US coast 10 years ago. His (and other Democrats) arguement was that we wouldn't see an effect from the drilling for 10 years and that we would have solved all our problems by then.

?? "Democrats???" What is hilarious about this style of nonsense claim is that not just Clinton, but McCain voted against drilling in ANWR in 1996 and has consistently voted against further offshore drilling. Oilman T. Boone Pickens, arch republican and financier behind the swift boat attacks on Kerry added: "This is one problem we can't drill our way out of."

Here's why this is not a partisan problem:

* The total known oil reserves for the US is 21 billion barrels. (
* According to the Department of energy, the US consumes 7.5 billion barrels per year. (
* Do the math. If our entire reserves including ANWR, including everything offshore were drilled and ready to pump today, we would be dry in 3 years.

The true irony here is that some folks actually believe that they have a factual leg to stand on when they advocate drilling as a solution to this issue.

But let's assume for a moment that we had larger reserves deliverable in a relevant timeframe. Even if such a fairy tale came true, what doesn't change is that all sectors of the US economy are vulnerable to a commodity that is vital to America, that America requires in vast quantities, and is increasingly growing rare and in much higher demand as populous countries like China and India rapidly industrialize. Oil is a global commodity and the Chinese with 300 million middle class adding 9 million cars per year are willing to pay very dearly for it.

That's why electricity generation (from whatever source) is a game changer not just for transportation but all major energy requirements. Since Electricity cannot easily be traded globally, a petroleum independent economy would be insulated from the wild energy price swings that have buffeted the world's economies.

The statement that alternative generation capacity requires decades is mistaken. Those laboring under this delusion needs to examine the speed of permitting and construction of solar thermal and photovoltaics. For example, you know that hippie tree huggers loonie group- the US Air Force? Well, they built at Nellis AFB the continent's largest solar farm in 9 months.

The facts illustrate a completely different picture than the partisan flame posters would have folks believe. Both republicans and democrats need to get behind a fact based policy that will get us to energy independence.

Congratulations to the researchers at UT for this promising breakthrough in Li-Ion production efficiency. Most consumers cannot afford a high up front capital cost for electric vehicles if the battery adds 10K to 15K to the price of the car- especially given the currently stressed capital markets.

RE: Electric is the future
By masher2 (blog) on 7/31/2008 12:41:36 AM , Rating: 2
> "What is hilarious about this style of nonsense claim is that not just Clinton, but McCain voted against drilling in ANWR in 1996 "

A vote which opposed the official Republican party position, and is often cited as one of the primary reasons the party base views McCain so dimly.

In any case, your point is moot. Bush Sr. supported an offshore drilling ban . . . but he did so when oil prices were declining, and when we were spending 0.5% of our total GDP on foreign oil, rather than the 2.5% we spend today.

> "Oilman T. Boone Pickens, arch republican [added] "This is one problem we can't drill our way out of."

T. Boone Pickens also has a $10B investment in government-subsidized wind farms. What does he care how high the price of oil goes? The less we drill, the more money he makes.

> "Do the math. If our entire reserves including ANWR, including everything offshore were drilled and ready to pump today, we would be dry in 3 years."

Your math is incorrect. ANWR alone may hold up to 16 billion barrels of oil. We don't know how much "everything offshore" entails -- the areas under the drilling ban haven't been surveyed. They're not included in known US reserves. Some estimates are as high as 10-12B.

That's as much as 28 billion barrels -- enough to cut our dependence on foreign oil imports by 1/3 for 17 years. It's also enough to add $4 trillion dollars to the nation's bottom line, and to keep oil prices from rising even further and causing economic ruin while we explore alternatives.

> "The statement that alternative generation capacity requires decades is mistaken"

If you're smoking a very large hookah perhaps. Other than nuclear, we don't have a viable technology yet to replace our use of fossil fuels. Even assuming that technology materializes in the next few years, replacing every car on the road, and building hundreds of new power plants will take decades. Hell, it took us forty years to just build the interstate road system, and that doesn't involve anything more complicated than pouring cement on the ground.

RE: Electric is the future
By psychmike on 8/3/2008 6:53:38 PM , Rating: 2
I'm leery of optimistic estimates (e.g. "May hold up to 16 billion barrels"). Let's allow exploration and then scientific estimates with confidence intervals.

On its face, your argument that further drilling should occur to keep the economy running while we explore alternatives holds a lot of weight. In reality, however, industry fights change tooth and nail and people don't make significant changes in lifestyle and reductions in consumption unless they have to. If a new supply of oil opens up, I'd expect to see development of the electric car and hybrids shelved until we return to approximately the same point in the cost of gasoline.

My friend is from Germany. She says that everyone recycles there and everyone tries to reduce consumption. If you make more than the allowed quota for garbage, you pay by the bag so people conserve. Consumers press to leave packaging in the stores. The retailers press the manufacturers to use less packaging or use recyclable material. She says that people aren't particularly environmentally conscious, and yet they produce dramatically less waste. Sometimes, top-down ideas that emphasize the common good work a lot better than consumer-based, bottom-up movements that are too susceptible to special interest corporate agendas.


RE: Electric is the future
By elgueroloco on 7/31/2008 7:06:58 PM , Rating: 3
Your link to our oil reserves didn't work for me. "Page not found."

Btw, 21 billion barrels is a retarded number. Even ANWR is a drop in the bucket compared to our total oil reserves. That number you cited may reflect the oil we are legally allowed to drill, but it does not reflect our total reserves.

According to the USGS, the Piceance Creek Basin of the Green River Formation alone holds 1.07 trillion barrels of crude ( and something like 73 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. The entire green river formation is estimated to hold around 1.7-1.8 trillion barrels. Saudi Arabia's total reserves, last I heard, were 250 billion barrels. That means that in one deposit, we have 4 times the oil of all of Saudi Arabia. Also, depending on how well we can get at it, we may be able to recover another 250 billion barrels from a 500 billion barrel deposit in Montana or Minnesota. I believe Daily Tech covered that story.

The US has more oil than any country in the world, except perhaps Russia (who knows how much is hidden in Siberia?).

According to my brother there is a company that, using a new method, can extract the oil from the shale in Green River and get it to market for $10/barrel. I haven't been able to corroborate that, but here is another article that says they can do it for $60/barrel. That's about half what we're paying the Arabs.

The main problem is that the oil shale is all on federal lands where it's illegal to drill. The environmentalists, traitors, and other parties in our gov't are preventing us from drilling $60/bbl oil in our own country, as well as lots of natural gas.

RE: Electric is the future
By redavni0 on 8/1/2008 7:08:01 AM , Rating: 1
I don't regard your brother as an authority on this subject, sorry.

Nobody has demonstrated that shale-oil extraction is even a viable process. It's also not illegal, there are multiple companies who have leased land and have active projects working on how to extract the oil. You should try reading that site you linked.

Another problem is that all the current techniques hopelessly pollute the surrounding watershed. Any cities who rely on that watershed would probably be pretty pissed off if their water is poisoned.

RE: Electric is the future
By masher2 (blog) on 8/1/2008 10:43:15 AM , Rating: 2
> "Nobody has demonstrated that shale-oil extraction is even a viable process."

Eh? China has operated a shale-oil extraction plant for several decades; it now processes 17,000 tons per day. Brazil and Estonia also have several plants in operations, and Canada is building a pilot plant as we speak.

RE: Electric is the future
By JMesserly on 8/1/2008 4:39:07 PM , Rating: 2
Interesting response. The Department of Energy does not know what our oil reserves are but you do.

Apologies for the broken link. Many of these gubmint web sites shuffle their pages around daily.

The link below is to a google search that will always deliver you hits on the figure. The silly handwaves above are unsupported and nonsensical, the facts remain. If all our reserves were online today, we would be out in 3 years. So why play a game that you are doomed to lose? This really is not a partisan issue. It is about America's economic security. If you want to score political points on this, that's even more of a fool's game to play while Rome is burning....

RE: Electric is the future
By JustTom on 8/3/2008 1:25:29 PM , Rating: 2
Proven oil reserves is misleading. Proven reserve have been fairly static over the last decade despite all the oil pumped out of the ground.

By PresidentThomasJefferson on 8/1/2008 4:22:34 PM , Rating: 2
I'm for driling for oil everywhere but
According to the gov's official own estimates/studies, offshore drilling will have NO significant effect on oil prices at all in the short-term nor long-term:

EIAbombshell: Offshore drilling “would not have a significant impact ondomestic crude oil and natural gas production or prices before 2030?

McCain has flip-flopped his position on offshore drilling, pandered to the oil companies, and embraced the exact same strategy endorsed by the man McCain is trying so hard to run away from — President Bush. He must have a damn good policy reason:

“Tomorrow I’ll call for lifting the federal moratorium for states that choose to permit exploration,” McCain said. “I think that this and perhaps providing additional incentives for states to permit exploration off their coasts would be very helpful in the short term in resolving our energy crisis.”

Short-term? If only the facts supported that position. If only theman who wants to be the next president bothered to check the analysisby the current president’s own energy analysts.

The U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) recently did adetailed study of the likely outcome of offshore drilling for their Annual Energy Outlook 2007, “Impacts of Increased Access to Oil and Natural Gas Resources in the Lower 48 Federal Outer Continental Shelf (OCS).” The sobering conclusion:

The projections in the OCS access case indicate that access to the Pacific, Atlantic, and eastern Gulf regions would not have a significant impact on domestic crude oil and natural gas production or prices before 2030.

And the impact of the projected 7% (!) increase in lower-48 oil production that might result in 2030 thanks to opening the OCS is … wait for it …

… any impact on average wellhead prices is expected to be insignificant.

Yes, the man who would be president has sold out his principles togarner support from the oil industry while achieving no benefit to theAmerican gasoline-consuming public whatsoever even a quarter centuryfrom now!

"the projections in the OCS access case indicate that access to the Pacific,Atlantic, and eastern Gulf regions would not have a significant impacton domestic crude oil and natural gas production or prices before 2030.Leasing would begin no sooner than 2012, and production would not be expectedto start before 2017. Total domestic production of crude oil from 2012through 2030 in the OCS access case is projected to be 1.6 percent higherthan in the reference case, and 3 percent higher in 2030 alone, at 5.6million barrels per day. For the lower 48 OCS, annual crude oil productionin 2030 is projected to be 7 percent higher—2.4 million barrels per dayin the OCS access case compared with 2.2 million barrels per day in thereference case (Figure 20). Because oil prices are determined on the internationalmarket, however, any impact on average wellhead prices is expected to beinsignificant.

Similarly, lower 48 natural gas production is not projected to increasesubstantially by 2030 as a result of increased access to the OCS. Cumulatively,lower 48 natural gas production from 2012 through 2030 is projected tobe 1.8 percent higher in the OCS access case than in the reference case.Production levels in the OCS access case are projected at 19.0 trillioncubic feet in 2030, a 3-percent increase over the reference case projectionof 18.4 trillion cubic feet. However, natural gas production from the lower48 offshore in 2030 is projected to be 18 percent (590 billion cubic feet)higher in the OCS access case (Figure 21). In 2030, the OCS access caseprojects a decrease of $0.13 in the average wellhead price of natural gas(2005 dollars per thousand cubic feet), a decrease of 250 billion cubicfeet in imports of liquefied natural gas, and an increase of 360 billioncubic feet in natural gas consumption relative to the reference case projections.In addition, despite the increase in production from previously restrictedareas after 2012, total natural gas production from the lower 48 OCS isprojected generally to decline after 2020. "

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