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Assault on the battery, charges pending


via Flickr © LHOON (CC BY-SA 2.0)

  • New technology could increase time between mobile device charges eightfold
  • Could also increase range of travel by electronic vehicles by at least 50 per cent
  • Lighter, more powerful, longer-lasting and cheaper to make
  • Time to set up the The Milk Float Preservation Society?

The increasing popularity and efficiency of electric vehicles is indisputable, but, as has always been the case, battery technology is the industry's biggest bugbear. Certainly advances have been made and most electrically-powered cars can now travel about 310 miles (500 km) between charges but the quest for enhanced or new battery technology that is lighter and will carry a charge for longer continues unabated.

The latest research, by scientists at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois in the US which, having been founded in 1850 has the honour of being the first chartered university in the state, claims that its new design for batteries for both electric vehicles and mobile comms devices could increase capacity eightfold while reducing their manufacturing costs.

The research team is split between two campuses. One, based at Northwestern is concentrating on the digital modelling of potential new batteries whilst the other team, at the Argonne National Laboratory sited in Lemont, not far from Chicago, is making physical experiments test the theory. The teams have recently jointly published their findings in a paper entitled "Enabling the high capacity of lithium-rich anti-fluorite lithium iron oxide by simultaneous anionic and cationic redox". It appeared in the academic journal "Nature Energy".

What is unique about the research is that the battery design being worked on used an iron-oxide cathode (a cathode is the negatively charged electrode that attracts positive charge in a battery) rather than the conventional cobalt-oxide cathode because iron-oxide is a lot cheaper than cobalt oxide and batteries based on iron oxide could be manufactured more cheaply than is currently the case, if you'll forgive the pun. Simultaneously, the research team also experimented with refining the use of oxygen ions in a battery cell that is in use.

An ion is an atom or group of atoms in which the number of electrons is different from the number of protons. If the number of electrons is less than the number of protons, the particle is a positive ion (also called a cation). If the number of electrons is greater than the number of protons, the particle is a negative ion (also called an anion)

Hitherto, using oxygen to effect reactions in a battery would render it unstable the compound that comprises the cell battery because the gas will escape from it and the combination of released oxygen and heat from a reacting battery cell under work stress is a recipe for disaster.

What the Northwestern team has done, using theoretical digital modelling is to show that oxygen ions in combination with a very specific mixture of iron and lithium ions prevents oxygen from escaping. What this means in practice is that by being able to use oxygen to transfer electrons four times the usual quantity of lithium can be incorporated in a battery and that, in turn will significantly increase a battery's output power.

The net result could mean that the battery in a mobile device may last up to eight times longer than they can today and that a battery-powered vehicle may be able to go at least four times further than is possible now. Were than to happen it would be a world-changing development.

Widespread usage could be 5 to 10 years away.

Of course, the work done so far is experimental and in its earliest stages and it will be a long time before batteries based on the new technology could ever be in common commercial use. Indeed, critics of the research, and they have been quick off the mark in talking down what they regard as over-egged publicity, say the embryonic experiments are based on little more computer simulations and that conclusions drawn from the are speculative kite-flying. They also complain that introduction of any such battery technology to the commercial markets will take between five and ten years.

That latter gripe is seems churlish. The development of new batteries has long been an iterative evolutionary process based on incremental improvements to existing technologies. At the same time scientists all over the world have been trying to come up with a tour de force that would issue-in a revolutionary step-change in battery technology but that breakthrough seems as far away as ever and what we are left with is, necessarily, continuing evolution. It's either that or stasis and perhaps curmudgeons need to remember that many other comms technologies have taken a long time to mature and break through into ubiquitous usage.

For example, the scientific theory behind the MOSFET (Metal-Oxide Semiconductor Field Effect Transistor) the base technology behind all modern communications technologies was first documented 90 years ago, back in 1928. It was a theory, but it was a theory that translated in practice and changed the way we all live today.

It took 35 years for production techniques to catch up with that theory and make it a practical reality, but it was worth the wait. Like Mick and Keith wrote, "You can't always get what you want" and technological developments do not necessarily equate to impatience and a demand for instantaneous gratification. In other words, give the scientists a chance.

The research team has filed provision patents for the new battery designs and is moving on to test several other combinations of compounds via the same methodology.

In the meantime the streets of British towns and cities will still awaken to the early morning sound of bottles gently rattling on the backs of tens of thousands of venerable electric milk floats, as they have since the battery powered vehicles were widely introduced shortly after the end of Second World War.

They are slow but they are quiet and they don't cause any pollution. They are icons, have long been the subject of songs and poems and are part of the British way of life. TelecomTV's  morning milk was delivered by electric milk float this morning and will be again tomorrow - and long may it continue.

And this breaking news just in: Last night, police apprehended two teenagers. One was drinking battery acid and the other one was eating fireworks. They charged one and let the other one off. ​

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