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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 Solandri on 7/30/2008 7:50:37 PM , Rating: 4
You speak as if this was theoretical. What do you think the $100 to $144 run-up was? Demand destruction took place, and is still occurring (largest reduction is highway miles driven monthly since data started being recorded). The US economy has shown amazing resilience, but it's taken oil on the chin. Private investment in alternative energy, meanwhile, has poured in despite the state of the economy.
Like I said, a certain level of energy use is "luxury" and easy to scale back. But at some point you stop cutting fat and start cutting muscle and bone. People need to get to work. Businesses need a minimal level of energy to manufacture and operate.
The government incentives and taxes try to spread out that spike over time.

How? Subsidies require taxes, and taxing energy makes it more expensive, thus simply making people more poor in real terms. Government-sponsored demand throttling, is that what you're really proposing? That's the net effect. There's no other way to "smooth" supply and demand other than either crushing it by force (taxes or production ceilings) or propping it up (subsidies). This has worked great with the ethanol sham, eh?
The first part is correct. Incentives (subsidies) require taxes. The taxes don't necessarily have to come from energy, but if you choose to do so, you can make the energy source you're trying to move away from relatively more expensive. That shifts the ratio of R&D spending more into alternatives than into oil.

I agree that in the long-term steady state applications this sort of market manipulation would be less efficient than simply letting things be. But we're not talking about a static system, we're talking about a dynamic one. The subsidies may end up costing (say) 1% of economic growth over 10 years.

But what happens in that 11th year when oil dries up? If you've been researching alternatives, the economy can shift over and only contracts (say) 10% due to the forced shift to alternatives. But if you're completely reliant on oil, the economy could contract (say) 40% because the alternatives aren't yet ready. The difference could far exceed the small 1% cost you paid over the previous 10 years. Basically, "a stitch in time saves nine."

The run-up in oil prices over the last year is a good example. If we'd ramped up to it, we could've spread the pain over the last 10 years instead of getting hit with it all in just 1 year. Spreading that pain would've cost more back then, but our economy wouldn't be suffering as badly now. And we would've had 10 years of R&D on alternatives, instead of getting caught with our pants down and trying to ramp up R&D now. (I actually think current oil prices are unrealistic, and they're bound to come down. But that's another discussion.)

In a fantasy where government can foresee both problems and their solutions, that's correct in that the government can force the proper diversification.
Need I point out that it's also a fantasy to believe the government can never foresee problems and their solutions? The government succeeds some of the time. Statistically when something is partially successful, the optimal solution ends up being using it some of the time. e.g. Say you can avoid parking fees by illegally parking on the street, but sometimes the police tickets you. It turns out the optimal solution isn't to always park illegally or never park illegally. The optimal solution is to sometimes park illegally, with the rate determined by the cost of parking vs. tickets and the rate at which you're ticketed.

In the real world, experience should really show us by now that the best case scenario is the free market one proposed by pauldovi; allow the price signal to shine through without interference (no subsidies or special taxes to any energy producing technology), and allow the industry to bring to market energy sources they need, not what we think they need.
For most situations I'd agree. But the supply/demand interaction with oil isn't based on the total supply of oil present underground. It's based on how much has been pumped out and is available to be used at the moment. The latter is by definition immune to the overall supply available underground, up until the point where it starts to impact the amount that can be pumped out. So the market is not factoring in the eventuality that oil will run out. It needs to be added artificially to the market price if you want the market to respond to it appropriately.

RE: Electric is the future
By oTAL on 8/1/2008 9:27:09 AM , Rating: 2
Amazing post.
Thank you for your insight on this. You have expressed some of my thoughts on this subject in a very clear organized way.
+6 =)

RE: Electric is the future
By oTAL on 8/1/2008 9:29:28 AM , Rating: 3
And by the way, most of the same arguments can be used for some of the agricultural subsidies. A significant "market correction" in agriculture is people starving to death, reducing demand... hardly acceptable.

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