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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 LyCannon on 7/30/2008 7:51:16 PM , Rating: 2
It's amazing what happens when a scientific friendly president is replaced with an idiot.

Oh, and an idiot who makes lots of money from oil. Of course electric tech hasn't advanced. I'm not a normal conspiracy theorist...but this one is hard to ignore.

RE: Electric is the future
By dragonbif on 7/30/2008 8:38:11 PM , Rating: 2
Drill for oil? Then do what with it???? Send it over seas to be refined and that saved us what? Not much. We can drill all we want but without the refineries to process that oil it does us no good. The last time an oil refinery was built in the US was 32 years ago. We used to supply the world with refined oil now we are supplied. Do you know the cost of shipping gas? It’s more then oil and you can bet your computer that they are going to start charging more to refine it if we stop buying oil from them. The big problem is it could take years to get the 1000+ permits to build one in the US and each one the company has to go to court and fight off all of the hippies, green smoking and java loving save the planet hypocrites.

About are current president, he has been signing more mass transit bills then any other president in the past 50 years. What we need is a better public transportation system and no not busses. Electric mass transit and cars are the best options.

So you know the majority of the US retirement is in oil so if you have a 401K or other plan you are joining the idiot president as an idiot.

RE: Electric is the future
By Rasterman on 7/31/2008 12:32:40 PM , Rating: 2
Did we suddenly lose the plans to build a refinery? If we needed refineries we would build them, 10 of them, 1000 of them. The problem is oil itself, its wasteful, destructive, and allows too much power to be controlled by few. Everything we are facing with moving away from oil has nothing to do with technology, it has everything to do with politics and corporations.

RE: Electric is the future
By porkpie on 7/30/2008 9:36:01 PM , Rating: 2
Oh, and an idiot who makes lots of money from oil.
The idiots are those who believe Bush makes money from oil, when his tax records and investments are all matter of public record.

RE: Electric is the future
By 67STANG on 7/31/2008 12:02:52 AM , Rating: 2
Serious, some people call him an idiot so call him a scheming special interest business man... honestly.. can he really be both? Also, haven't we already established he's just a simple idiot?

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