New lithium-ion technology may finally make batteries cheap and durable enough to turn electric cars from a niche product into a mass-market mode of transport. Waltham, Mass.–manufacturer A123 Systems has produced a cell that delivers 20 percent more power, works at temperatures as low as −30 degrees Celsius and as high as 60 degrees C, and should be just as easy as current batteries to manufacture.
Independent scientists who have been scrutinizing the company's claims say they are impressed. From the few details that A123 will reveal, the new battery, known as Nanophosphate EXT, seems to be based on the same lithium iron phosphate chemistry found in other A123 batteries that appear everywhere from electronics to hybrid electric buses but with improved properties.
The increased power and expanded temperature range suggest that A123 scientists have improved the way that electrons and ions shuffle through the battery system. That fact, in turn, suggests a refinement in one or all of three places: the electrolyte (the ion-carrying guts of the battery); the interface between the electrolyte and the electrodes (the charge-collecting plates); and the electrodes themselves. Manufacturing innovations may also contribute. Although A123 is not divulging specifics about what new advances went into this battery, the firm holds patents relating to work on novel electrode and electrolyte materials as well as battery structures. “If this is real, it's a major breakthrough,” says Jeffrey Chamberlain, who leads the Energy Storage initiative at Argonne National Laboratory and was not involved in this research.
The new batteries may first find use not in all-electric cars but in microhybrids because they might last much longer than current lead-acid batteries. A123's batteries are slightly more expensive (roughly $250 more per battery) but also half as heavy and 30 percent as small.
First the firm will have to survive, however. It has been reporting large losses in the wake of a major battery recall last year. It is hoping this new battery will help the company make a fresh start. “The proof is in the pudding,” Chamberlain says.