As 2007 drew to a close, a series of announcements from research centres from around the world on new battery-related technologies being developed demonstrated how they could change the way in which we drive, work and enjoy our entertainment options.
Stanford researchers have found a way to use silicon nanowires to reinvent the rechargeable lithium-ion batteries that power laptops, iPods, video cameras, cell phones, and countless other devices. The new version, developed through research led by Yi Cui, assistant professor of materials science and engineering, produces 10 times the amount of electricity of existing lithium-ion, known as Li-ion, batteries. A laptop that now runs on batteries for two hours could operate for 20 hours, a boon to ocean-hopping business travelers.
'It's not a small improvement,' Cui said. 'It's a revolutionary development.'
The breakthrough is described in a paper, 'High-performance lithium battery anodes using silicon nanowires,' published online Dec. 16 in Nature Nanotechnology, written by Cui, his graduate chemistry student Candace Chan and five others.
The greatly expanded storage capacity could make Li-ion batteries attractive to electric car manufacturers. Cui suggested that they could also be used in homes or offices to store electricity generated by rooftop solar panels. 'Given the mature infrastructure behind silicon, this new technology can be pushed to real life quickly,' Cui said.
Cui is considering formation of a company or an agreement with a battery manufacturer. Manufacturing the nanowire batteries would require 'one or two different steps, but the process can certainly be scaled up,' he added. 'It's a well understood process.'
Secondly, Japanese electronic giant Toshiba stunned the world with an announcement of what's pretty much the Holy Grail in Lithium battery technology: The Super Charge ion Battery, which recharges up to 90% of its energy in just five minutes, and has a lifespan of over 10 years. Slow charging has been the key hurdle to public acceptance of battery-electric vehicles as viable distance travelers, so this breakthrough has all sorts of implications for the automotive industry as well as being a very welcome upgrade to a whole host of other portable devices.
The first of Toshiba's groundbreaking SCiB packs will ship in March 2008 to an industrial systems market that Toshiba forecasts being worth 100 billion Yen by 2015. There's no mention of when the technology is likely to hit the consumer market, but with such rapid charging ability, ultra-long life and high resistance to rupture and combustion, the SCiB looks like the first of a new generation of battery cells that will allow electric vehicle drivers to top up their cells in nearly the same amount of time a petrol vehicle takes to fill.
To this end, Toshiba is working on a high-performance version of the SCiB targeted at the automotive industry. The development of high-powered, long-lasting, rapid-charge battery cells offers the automotive industry a simple and extremely efficient alternative to Hydrogen fuel cell vehicles, whose competitive advantage thus far lies in their ability to refuel in a similar manner to petrol-powered cars. Batteries, it can be argued, are much more energy-efficient, delivering as much as three times more power from the electricity grid to the wheels as fuel cell vehicles are able to.
GS Yuasa Corporation, Mitsubishi Corporation, and Mitsubishi Motors Corporation announced that, effective December 12, 2007 they have formed the joint venture company 'Lithium Energy Japan' to produce large capacity and high performance lithium-ion batteries.
GS Yuasa possesses advanced technologies in large lithium-ion batteries and is striving to broaden their applications. Meanwhile, Mitsubishi Corporation intends to enter the battery manufacturing business and aims to create other related businesses as well. Finally, Mitsubishi Motors Corporation is working to promote greater use of electric vehicles, which they see as the ultimate in environmentally-friendly automobiles.
Through the development, production, and sales of these batteries, the new company will demonstrate how environmental technologies can be incorporated into society and accelerate the use of these technologies as well, including electric vehicles, plug-in hybrid vehicles, and energy recycling systems.
Another battery called 'Li-tech' has been developed by a consortium of German companies, including Bosch, BASF, and Volkswagon. Li-Tech claims to have created a new lithium-ion battery, called Separion, that out-does the current offerings from the likes of Toyota and some French car makers.
What differentiates it from similar batteries is that the electrodes are separated by a flexible ceramic membrane that provides greater thermal stability, according to the German group.
Felix von Brock, director of German Akasol research center, commented, 'It's a true technological break. It is a crucial boost for the success of lithium-ion batteries. We think the first series of electric cars could arrive within five to 10 years.'
Meanwhile in the United States, General Motors has launched what it calls the auto industry's first design studio focused exclusively on electric plug-in vehicles. Its first order of business is getting the Chevrolet Volt on the road by 2010. The E-Flex Design Studio will employ 45 designers, engineers and scientists to develop vehicles featuring plug-in hybrid technology.
The ambitious program offers the strongest evidence yet that the world's largest automaker is serious about its campaign to improve fuel efficiency, embrace hybrids and develop alternative-fuel vehicles.
Just as the Plug in Hybrid momentum continues, the technology 'to make it happen' is also developing at an accelerating pace.
Impressive as these announcements seem, however, these technologies are 5-10 years away in terms of impacting on the automobile market, though some may affect consumer electronics much sooner.