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The battery revolution

By Mike Pope - posted Tuesday, 7 April 2009

On March 12, 2009, President Obama announced the allocation of $2 billion for Research and Development (R&D) of electric vehicles (EV’s). The battery in these vehicles was regarded as being of such fundamental importance, that $1.5 billion of this sum is being provided for R&D into their improvement. The balance was for development of electric motors for use in trucks and passenger vehicles.

The Obama administration has good reason for attaching so much importance to the development of a battery able to hold a much higher charge, which rapidly recharges many thousands of times and is durable, light and cheaper to make than existing batteries. Portable energy is fundamental to our way of life and the direction of its future development.

Consider existing appliances which depend on the battery for energy: the simple mobile phone or more complex Blackberry, the wrist-watch, radio, camera, iPod, laptop, torch, fan or mini TV and others.


Since its invention by Alessandro Volta in 1800, the battery has been developed into many shapes and sizes. Over the ensuing 200 years improvements have been made in its ability to store electricity, provide power for an extended period, and there have been improvements in its production cost. Surprisingly, significant improvements in its capacity have not been achieved.

Users will know the frustration of not being able to use a laptop for more than two or three hours without the need to recharge the battery. Mobile phone users experience similar constraints. Those using other devices equipped with batteries know how long it takes to recharge them, if in fact they are rechargeable. It is often cheaper and quicker to purchase a new battery and throw the old one away rather than attempt to recharge it.

Truly glittering prizes are on offer to the scientists who research and develop the technology, as well as for the manufacturers able to commercially produce cheaper batteries with the enhancements sought by President Obama. Imagine the difference such batteries could make. A battery with increased capacity to hold a charge could be smaller and lighter, provide power for a longer period and recharge more quickly.

This is what makes recent statements by researchers so important for the future direction and growth of electronics. Dr Gerbrand Ceder and graduate student Byoungwoo Kang of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) reported in Nature (March 12, 2009) that they had developed technology enabling production of lithium-ion phosphate batteries able to conduct electricity very quickly and handle repeated charges without degrading. Reports of their work are summarised at Google News.

The application of their breakthrough would make it possible for a mobile phone battery to recharge in 10 seconds and that of a laptop in about a minute. Moreover, the charge which could be held by such a battery would be in the order of 10 times greater than existing batteries. This conjures up the prospect of a laptop running for 20 hours or more before requiring rapid re-charge from the electricity mains.

Other work being undertaken in America and by CSIRO in Australia is well advanced. It involves development of a hybrid super-capacitor/battery with similar ability to hold and release an electric charge 10-20 times that of currently used conventional batteries. Similar outcomes have been achieved with the use of nano-technology. It is expected that both nanotechnology and the MIT technology would be in commercial production within three years. A date for commercial production of a hybrid super-capacity/battery has not been published.


Developments in battery technology have the ability to improve the past and develop the future. They have the potential to extend the design and use of existing portable electronic devices, enable wider and more efficient use of electricity and enhance production of electricity from sunlight.

Significant improvements in battery performance of the kind described by Dr Ceder could extend the distance electric vehicles can travel between battery recharging from 200km to at least 1,000km. A rapid 5-10 minute recharge would be possible, rather than the recharge period of several hours required for existing batteries used in EV’s. If used in banks, such batteries could provide the power needed to drive heavy commercial vehicles and other equipment now operated by diesel.

The implications of this are profound and far reaching. The price of electricity required to propel a car 100km costs about 20-33 per cent of the price of petrol required to cover that distance, assuming a petrol price of $1.15 a litre. The availability of a comparatively light and compact battery bank able to provide the energy needed to propel a car for more than 500km before the need for re-charging could rapidly kill the market for fossil fuelled cars.

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About the Author

Mike Pope trained as an economist (Cambridge and UPNG) worked as a business planner (1966-2006), prepared and maintained business plan for the Olympic Coordinating Authority 1997-2000. He is now semi-retired with an interest in ways of ameliorating and dealing with climate change.

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