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Surge in Battery Research Fuels Hope for Cheaper Electric Cars

Stanford scientists Mike Toney and Johanna Nelson inspect a transmission X-ray microscope, a powerful device that takes nano-scale images of chemical reactions in batteries while they are running.

Revelations in lithium battery technology could mean cheaper batteries and less sticker shock for electric cars

Imagine if Tesla, Nissan and GM could cut the price of their electric cars by 25%. That electric dream may be a wee bit closer than you think, thanks to researchers at Stanford University.

Recently a team from Stanford’s SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory announced a new method to analyze and potentially improve rechargeable battery technology in a radical way. A cheap, reliable rechargeable battery is the holy grail for electric carmakers that rely on costly lithium ion batteries for power. Instead of the usual pairing of a lithium compound with graphite, the study examined lithium-sulfur batteries, which in theory can store five times more energy at a significantly lower cost.

“Sulfur is an earth-abundant element and offers the greatest potential to reduce cost,” said research co-author Michael Toney, head of the Materials Sciences Division at SLAC’s Stanford Synchrotron Radiation Lightsource.

The affordability factor has long been a challenge for climate-conscious carmakers who want to fuel their vehicles with oil-free energy. Batteries can cost as much as half of the electric vehicles they power, so significant cost reductions in battery production could potentially make electric cars cheap enough to gain mass market appeal.

The study used high-power X-ray imaging to analyze what happens inside a lithium-sulfur battery when the battery is running. To date, such batteries have had short life spans, failing after only a few dozen charges and discharges. This made them unsuitable for powering electric cars, which require thousands of cycles over their lifetime.

In previous experiments, this short lifespan was attributed to the chemical reactions that were thought to deplete a key part of the battery known as the sulfur cathode. But the new analysis by the study’s co-author, Johanna Nelson found “only negligible changes in the size of (sulfur) particles.”


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