Ground-breaking battery technology could make electric cars more efficient

Researchers have proposed a new lithium-oxygen technology in their batteries, which could make long distance journeys in electric cars a reality.

An electric car plugged in and charging

Lithium-oxygen, or lithium-air batteries as they are also known, have the potential for between 5-15 times the efficiency of existing lithium-ion batteries that are currently used in electric cars.

However, they have faced a number of technological challenges which has hindered progress – mainly the fact that nearly a third of the energy is still being wasted as heat, and the life span is currently quite short.

However, a new study led by Ju Li, who is a professor of nuclear science and engineering at the Battelle Energy Alliance and MIT, alongside six other researchers from MIT, Argonne National Laboratory and Peking University, is looking at a new approach to stop so much energy being wasted as heat.

The new approach results in a ‘nanolithia cathode’ battery, which is a lot more versatile than most Lithium-oxygen batteries, and dodges a few key issues they usually experience, such as needing another system to keep carbon dioxide and water at bay.

Existing Lithium-oxygen batteries draw in air to create a chemical reaction whilst the battery is being used, with this then released again to reverse the action and recharge the battery. It is required to have an internal and external air flow process, which is where the carbon dioxide and water enter.

To get around this issue, a method of discharging and recharging without needing to let the oxygen return to its gaseous form, meaning there is no need for pumps and membranes to extract it.

Instead, the new development (featuring some very complicated scientific processes) reduces the voltage loss from 1.2 volts to 0.24 volts, so only 8% of the electrical energy is turned to heat.

This results in faster charging and much more efficient batteries, with claims that they could also prove to have a much longer life than current Lithium-ion models, as they are protected from overcharging through the natural chemical reaction process.

In testing, the batteries have been overcharged for 15 days to over a hundred times its capacity, and there was no damage at all, according to the researchers.

The team are looking to produce a working, practical prototype within a year, with the view to have them in the hands of manufactures within 18 months. What’s more, the researchers said the technology could “certainly fit” in a smartphone, meaning we could soon have phones that do not need charging on a daily basis!

So when it comes to the time where you say “it’s time to sell my Audi” and upgrade to an electric car, you may be greeted with a model that can finally cope with long distance journeys.