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The race to make an electric car that charges as quickly as a petrol one

Researchers are racing to develop a battery that can recharge in 10 minutes and power a car for hundreds of miles

If stopping for gas took five or six hours, would you rethink that road trip? How about an hour? When it comes to electric vehicles, topping up the “tank” does indeed take a long time, one of the primary barriers to more widespread adoption of EVs. So it is no surprise that there is an aggressive push to improve batteries and charging infrastructure, with a goal of making a stop for a recharge no different than a stop for gas.

But pushing a lot of power into a little battery in a short time presents daunting technical challenges. Standard lithium-ion batteries simply aren’t optimized to receive a charge quickly; the car, the plug, and even the wiring would likely need to be revamped in order to enable substantially faster power flow. And there are serious questions about whether the power grid is sufficiently robust to allow massive hits from thousands — or millions — of rapidly charging EVs.

Still, a wide range of companies — from major EV players like General Motors and Nissan to smaller battery manufacturers like Envia, PolyPlus, and A123 Systems — are all pursuing a durable, rapidly rechargeable battery. This means developing higher energy densities, smaller batteries, and — to reduce charging times — lowering internal resistance to ion flow. All these innovations must be achieved while reducing the chances of catastrophic failure, such as the battery catching fire, and keeping down the costs of manufacturing.

Paul Braun, who works on battery materials at the University of Illinois, said a car cruising down the road uses about the same power as 100 hundred-watt light bulbs. Charging rapidly would mean moving the power through the battery 20 times faster than it discharges — a major slug of power “many times what is supplied to your house,” Braun said.

Still, progress is being made, and many think rapid charging is coming within 5 to 10 years. Such improvements are sorely needed: Adoption of lower-emissions electric vehicles has been slow, and President Obama’s goal of having 1 million EVs on the road by 2015 may seem overly optimistic at this point.

The longest range EVs on the market now, such as the recently released Tesla Model S, can go up to 300 miles on a single charge, but still cost more than $70,000. The Nissan LEAF, which costs about $30,000, can travel less than 100 miles on a single charge, and the slightly more expensive Ford Focus Electric can travel a similar distance. Tesla’s Model S will yield about 60 miles of range per hour of charging with the best home plug-in systems, and even the LEAF’s smaller battery takes around an hour to charge.

“Part of the drive for the [Chevy] Volt, or even for the [Toyota] Prius, was to minimize changes in consumer behavior,” says Dane Boysen, a program director at the Department of Energy’s Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E). “You can buy a Prius and not change your behavior at all.” (The Volt and Prius are hybrid vehicles, sometimes running on electricity and sometimes on gasoline.) But at this point, all-electric vehicles still require significant changes in consumer habits.

So what are the main barriers to reducing charge times?

“One of the key challenges is that the batteries have an internal resistance to flow,” Braun says. Lithium-ion batteries are charged by moving charged particles from a cathode to an anode; pushing those ions into the anode takes time, and forcing them in faster heats up the battery and causes efficiency losses. And if you push too hard, lithium ions may build up in metallic form on the surface of the anode, a phenomenon known as plating, which can drastically shorten a battery’s lifespan. Even without plating, the effects of rapid charging might drop a battery’s life from thousands of cycles down into the hundreds.

“In a conventional battery, the pathways for the ion are very random and not always well connected,” Braun says. “That increases the internal resistance.” His group and others are working on ways to create highly structured internal battery architectures that allow for substantially faster electron and ion transport. Their technology has been licensed by a company called Xerion Advanced Battery Corp.

Gleb Yushin, a materials scientist at the Georgia Institute of Technology, says improving the design of the anode part of the battery, which is most commonly made out of graphite, is an active area of research for both increasing speeds and reducing plating issues. Smaller particles of graphite would enable a faster charge by allowing the ions to move in and out more easily, but small particles also mean lower capacity. Yushin says his lab and many others are trying to make anodes out of materials like silicon and tin that ideally would avoid plating when charged rapidly and would also increase energy density of the batteries.

Others are taking more radical looks at lithium-ion design. Prieto Battery, spun out of research at Colorado State University, uses copper nanowires as the anode and separates them from a cathode array with a polymer rather than the standard liquid electrolyte separator. The three-dimensional structure created by the tiny wires makes the distance a lithium ion must travel much shorter.

These approaches could yield a dramatic cut in charge time. Instead of one mile per minute, Braun says there is a reasonable goal of getting between 10 and 50 miles of driving range per minute of charge. At that pace, even a large battery could top up a 300-mile range in less than 10 minutes.



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