Hybrids, Electrics: Nano Power?

Dec. 16, 2005
Nanotechnology boosts the operating characteristics of lithium-ion batteries.

Want evidence that electric cars could soon be competing with hybrids? Consider what nanotechnology adds to lithium-ion batteries in terms of better battery life, power density and charge times.

Those benefits -- up to 10 times longer cycle life, fivefold power gains and five-minute charge times -- are beginning to be incorporated in Black & Decker Corp.'s line of

DeWALT tools. Those performance levels have been validated by Motorola and government labs, says the battery vendor, Watertown, Mass.-based A123Systems.

DeWALT is powering a new heavy-duty 36-volt power tool platform with the nano-enhanced battery technology.

A123Systems sees a two-fold opportunity -- enhancing the performance of conventional battery-powered devices and transforming products currently dependent on power cords and sockets into a new class of portable devices, says David Vieau, CEO and president.

In addition, development programs with the U.S. Energy Department show the technology's promise for the future of electric and hybrid electric vehicles, says A123's Ric Fulop, founder and vice president of business development. The performance gains derive from how the high surface area of some nano materials can enable high discharge and charge rates, says Alan Gotcher, CEO, Altair Nanotechnologies Inc., Reno, Nev.

Hydrogen Economy In The Plant?

The hydrogen economy is building -- not on the highway yet, but certainly on the plant floor. Case-in-point: a retrofitting service that offers owners of conventional lift trucks an opportunity to gain fuel-cell benefits by just replacing the lead-acid batteries. The payback is in time savings plus efficiency gains, says Frank Trotter, president and CEO, General Hydrogen Corp., Richmond, British Columbia, Canada. "Typical payout is two-and-a-half to four years." Cost? Think of it this way -- over a 10-year period the capital cost will be double that of a lead-acid battery, but operating cost will be less than half, adds Trotter. "Expect the delivery of constant voltage, no need for a battery room and no change in operating characteristics." The fuel tank lasts 18 hours and refills in three minutes, says Trotter. Typical customer: end-users such as Bridgestone in Wayne County, Tenn.
The reason: the high surface area provides easy access for the lithium ions to enter and exit the nano material crystals. He says cycle life is lengthened by selecting nano material that resists crystal degradation (fracturing) during use. He says conventional lithium-ion batteries typically have a 300 to 500 cycle life while batteries enhanced with appropriate nano materials can reach 4,000 to 5,000. "In the form of a supercapacitor, we have test results up to 350,000 cycles." Gotcher says Altair's collaboration with battery-maker Advanced Battery Technologies is targeting both hybrid and electric vehicles markets. Road tests in both categories are scheduled.

Automakers are nano-receptive. "Ford sees the work on nano-enhanced batteries as the latest validation of our continuing internal commitment to the research and use of nanotechnology as both a material and a tool to improve product performance," says John Ginder, acting manager, Physical and Environmental Sciences Department, Ford's Research and Advanced Engineering. He says the Dearborn, Mich.-based automaker recently strengthened its nano commitment via a research alliance with Boeing and Northwestern University. Nano initiatives by suppliers also are increasing, adds Ginder.

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