Since its release last December the Chevy Volt has proven to be extremely popular — it’s been crowned the 2011 Green Car of the Year, the North American Car of the Year and its sales eclipsed those of the Nissan Leaf. However it is set to become even more appealing as GE announced it is working on a new generation of batteries with double the energy-storage capacity. GM’s licensed battery-electrode materials developed at Argonne National Laboratory (a U.S. Department of Energy lab) use mixed-metal oxides that not only increase storage capacity, but improve the safety and durability of car batteries.
Currently the Chevy Volt uses lithium-ion batteries made with lithium-manganese spinel cathodes. The cathode material also contains lithium, nickel, manganese, and cobalt. The material has both active components, through which lithium ions move when the battery is charged or discharged, and inactive ones that help stabilize the active material and extend battery life. The new material is reported to have a high energy density, allowing it to store more lithium ions and operate at a higher voltage than current electrode materials.
“The whole concept of improving energy density is the prize when it comes to these kinds of vehicles,” says Jon Lauckner, president of GM Ventures, GM’s venture-capital arm. Cost has always been the biggest factor when it comes to electric car battery production, but the new materials could save a lot of money. By increasing the amount of energy that a battery stores, car manufacturers are able to make a smaller battery pack, thereby reducing costs. Lauckner did not say how much money the new technology will save, but “suffice it to say, it is significant; it is not a single-digit percentage.”
Several companies (including Argonne and Envia) are working on increasing battery capacity by combining advanced nickel-manganese-cobalt electrode materials with advanced silicon anod materials. The project is being funded by the Department of Energy’s Advanced Research Projects Agency, and if it’s a success it could mean batteries that store three times as much energy as current lithium-ion car batteries.
Photos by Mike Chino