By Corey Conley
Quick – Think of the fastest, most powerful cars you know. Chances are you imagined some sleek sports car, or a massive pickup rumbling with diesel power. Most of you didn’t imagine an electric car. There’s a good reason for this. With a few notable exceptions, electric cars have the well-earned reputation for being slow and range-crippled. However, researchers at MIT? are working on a technology that could turn that perception upside down.
The problem with electric cars isn’t the motor. Electric motors are by many measures superior to their gas-fired counterparts – they’re far more efficient, have no need for complicated transmissions or lubricant, and have exactly one moving part. On the power side, they’ll supply 100% of torque at any RPM. That’s the stuff that pushes you back in the seat when you accelerate from a stoplight, or creates long, smokey burnouts.
What’s Holding Electric Cars Back?
No, the Achilles Heel for any electrically powered device is the power source. Batteries suck. They’re, big heavy, expensive, slow to recharge, and hold just a fraction of the energy you can find in a gas tank of the same volume or weight. These drawbacks are deal-killers for those of us used to the five-minute fill-ups and 400-mile range we get from our gas burners.
Enter the semi-solid flow cell battery. Called “Cambridge Crude” for its black color and high viscosity, this design takes the innards of a battery and liquifies them – like putting a battery in a food processor (note: don’t do this – you will not advance battery technology with your Cusinart). The battery’s active components, like the positive and negative electrodes, are replaced by particles suspended in a liquid electrolyte.
The Benefits That Come With Liquid Batteries
Researchers claim this produces a staggering 10-fold improvement in energy density over other liquid flow-batteries, and will undercut the cost of lithium-ion batteries, the current top battery design.
It won’t just slash costs. Most of a batteries volume and mass is dedicated to the inert structural and support systems – this new liquid-flow design could slash the size of the complete electrical system to half of modern design.
Even these improvements pale to the potential improvements in refill time. Today the fastest quick-chargers for a Nissan Leaf boast a 45 minute recharge time – that’s a long time to munch on a gas station Snickers. It’s easy to imagine a future where drivers on the go would simply pump out their depleted liquid battery and pump in a fully charged one in a matter of minutes – eliminating one of the major hurdles to electric-car viability.
There are still major hurdles before you’ll be pumping your car full of liquid battery. Job one: finding better materials for the cathodes, anodes, and electrolytes. Research into solutions, funded in large part by a grant from the federal governments Advanced Research Projects Agency, is ongoing.
Of course, history is littered with promising battery technology that never quite made it into primetime. Blame tech constraints, oil company conspiracies, or the economic pressures facing any power source that wants to compete against hydrocarbons, the record for game-changing battery technology is grim.
Still, if successful, it could revolutionize the electric-car industry, and that’s worth getting charged up about.
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