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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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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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