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Can 500-mile lithium-air car battery make gas obsolete?

The days of gas-guzzling cars may come to an end before we run out of oil if technologies such as 500-mile-per-charge lithium-air batteries become a real and affordable option. A company that customizes carbons at the molecular level believes it can help us get there.

Along the way, the same process the company employs to manufacture carbons for prototype lithium-air batteries is being used to improve the efficiency of batteries in gasoline and hybrid-electric vehicles, making a dent in carbon emissions.

For example, Seattle-based EnerG2 is developing carbons that improve the life cycle of lead-acid batteries at the heart of so-called “start-stop” hybrid vehicles. These cars work like gas-fueled golf carts: punch the accelerator and the engine starts; come to a full stop and the engine idles off.

“That gives you about an 8 to 12 percent boost in fuel economy,” Rick Luebbe, EnerG2 co-founder and CEO, told me in an interview at the company’s headquarters.

The company manufactures a highly pure carbon with a precisely tailored pore structure that’s an additive to lead acid battery chemistry. This has led to a ten-fold improvement in the life cycle of the batteries, a key step to bringing down the cost of the technology and accelerating its adoption.

The carbon adds about $3 to $7 to the cost of a battery, Luebbe noted, but with a 10 percent boost in fuel economy it will pay for itself quickly. He expects the start-stop technology to be in most new cars within a few years.

“And it looks like our carbon is going to be one of the key enablers to make that work in a more cost-effective way,” he said.

Custom Carbons
Carbon comes in many forms — from diamonds to graphite to coal. Each form is determined by its molecular structure. The technology at the heart of EnerG2 is a platform that enables the customization of carbon structures at the molecular level.

“The way those carbons are structured really determines how good they are in an application,” Luebbe said. “We then realized that how a carbon is structured is really a reflection of the molecular structure of the precursor.”

The precursor is the source of the carbon. Coconut shells are the precursor for the porous carbon electrodes in ultracapacitors, for example.

“Coconuts didn’t evolve with the intent to be involved in ultracapacitors,” Luebbe noted.


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