The battery tech that could change electric vehicles. A real breakthrough is coming

Volkswagen is testing a new type of battery that it says could be four times as powerful as existing technology

5/14/14 4:38 pm chumakdenis 1

The battery is the heart of the electric car. Batteries are today quite safe, and last for a vehicle’s lifetime. Yet there is still room for improvement. Volkswagen is driving this development forward with intensive research.

A battery that could be four times as powerful as existing technology

Volkswagen is bench testing new battery chemistry capable of providing "between three and four times the power" from a given capacity. This would mean up to 80kWh from a similar volume occupied by the current Golf Blue-e-motion's 26.5kWh battery pack.

That's according to Dr Heinz-Jakob Neusser, VW board member responsible for development. Speaking at theGeneva motor show, he said that the company has tested lithium-ion batteries with its existing cell supplier (Sanyo) with between 24 and 28kWh and also up to 37kWh, but “an 80kWh unit is under development using our own technology. It would provide between three and four times the battery power in a given package.”

Neusser refuses to name the battery chemistry, but doesn’t deny it is a lithium-air unit, which are capable of delivering huge amounts of power, but are in the very early stages of development.

As to how far a plug-in hybrid or pure battery car could travel in electric mode with such a battery, Neusser says that depends on what the customer wants. He suggests that as a second car, most customers will settle for about 200km (124 miles) of electric range, but as the family’s main transport a battery would have to provide a much greater range.

Neusser also confirmed that VW’s fuel cell research has switched to a conventional water/hydrogen cell proton exchange membrane cell rather than the phosphoric acid high temperature cell research the company was engaged in some years ago.

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Why lithium-air batteris weren't used before?

Well, the answer is pretty easy.Lack of knowledge and not so developed technologies as nowadays.

Lithium-air has been a battery holy grail of sorts since the 1970s, but obstacles such as electrolyte degradation, manufacturability, and high cost have prevented the lithium-air takeover that would truly catapult EVs into the mainstream. But improvements on lithium-air technology continue to move forward with recent wok by researchers from Mie University in Japan.

What's the difference between lithium-ion and lithium-air batteries?

The primary distinction between lithium-ion and lithium-air batteries is that lithium-air batteries replace the cathode with air — which results in a notably lighter battery, with the potential to hold in a great deal of energy. Some researchers have stated that these “breathing” batteries could result in EVs with ranges greater than 300 miles a charge.

“Our system’s practical energy density is more than 300 Wh/kg,” Nobuyuki Imanishi, PhD stated. “That’s in contrast to the energy density of a commercial lithium-ion battery, which is far lower, only around 150 Wh/kg.”

Concurrency rising

A technology breakthrough of this kind could transform the range capabilty of hybrids and EVs, and Volkswagen isn't the first car manufacturer to recognize the potential. Toyota Motor Corporation has tried to avoid the use of lithium-ion batteries, like those present in its Prius Plugin-EV and RAV4 EV, as much as possible due to their high cost. But the company is currently conducting research on the use of lithium-air technology.

“As Toyota anticipates the widespread use of electric vehicles in the future, we have begun research in developing next-generation secondary batteries with performance that greatly exceeds that of lithium-ion batteries,” Toyota wrote.

If Volkswagen and Toyota are successful in developing lithium-air batteries, that could mean bad news for Tesla Motors, which is currently in the process of bringing Elon Musk’s planned "gigafactory" into life. The factory would enable the car manufacturer to dramatically increase lithium-ion battery production.

But Musk shouldn’t abandon his plans just yet. Volkswagen hasn’t provided a timeframe for these new batteries, regulating its announcement to the “wouldn’t it be nice” category for now.

And it would be nice to have Tesla-like range in a new, compact EV car.

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