There’s been an intriguing, and possibly even useful, advancement in batteries thanks to researchers at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign:

Of all the criticisms of electric vehicles, probably the most commonly-heard is that their batteries take too long to recharge – after all, limited range wouldn’t be such a big deal if the cars could be juiced up while out and about, in just a few minutes. Well, while no one is promising anything, new batteries developed at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign do indeed look like they might be a step very much in the right direction. They are said to offer all the advantages of capacitors and batteries, in one unit.

“This system that we have gives you capacitor-like power with battery-like energy,” said U Illinois’ Paul Braun, a professor of materials science and engineering. “Most capacitors store very little energy. They can release it very fast, but they can’t hold much. Most batteries store a reasonably large amount of energy, but they can’t provide or receive energy rapidly. This does both.”

Batteries equipped with the 3D film have been demonstrated to work normally in electrical devices, while being able to charge and discharge 10 to 100 times faster than their conventional counterparts.

Got your attention? Yeah, that’s what I thought.

A little calculating music, if you please. Bach seems to work well, particularly as realized by Wendy Carlos.

Assume you have a 100 mile/charge, 5 mile/kWh EV, and you need to charge it from an 80% depleted state. That is likely less remaining charge than most EVs will have when plugged in, so consider it a “routine worst case” scenario. This means your car has a 20 kWh battery, and you need to pump 16 kWh into it to top it off.

With today’s batteries, that’s roughly an 8 hour operation, which means you need a 2 kW source (16 kWh/8 h). If you’re using a 240 volt source, that’s an 8.3 amp line (2,000 W/240 V), while a 120 Volt line requires 16.6 amps (2,000 W/120 V). For comparison, a modern vacuum cleaner is usually in the 10 to 15 amp range.

But if we use the new uberbattery and reduce your charge time by “merely” a factor of 10, then our 0.8 hour charge cycle via a 240 volt line will pull 83 amps, and a 120 volt line will pull 166 amps. If you’re not familiar with electricity nuances, that’s a butt load of amps. Most new, standalone US houses with central air conditioning are wired for something like 200 amps, with 15 or 20 amp breakers for the usual household lighting, and much heavier duty breakers for things like electric ranges.

My point is that while it’s certainly possible that you could retrofit that kind of charging capacity into your garage, it would be anything but a trivial operation. You’d have to add a new, high capacity breaker, a heavy duty line from the box to the garage, and likely upgrade your electrical service — if you plugged in your car when the central air was running you’d surely leap right over whatever limit (e.g. the 200 amp number above) your house can handle.

My guess is that if such batteries became widely used (more on this below), we wouldn’t be doing 0.8 hour recharges, but something a bit less frenetic, like 2 or 3 hours, at least for in-home use. That’s still pushing a hellish number of amps for hours at a time, just significantly less hellish.

So, aside from customers, anyone who wants less CO2 in the air, and companies interested in selling batteries and EVs, who would benefit from this breakthrough, you ask? Service station operators. They would be able to build the infrastructure that would let them pump those huge numbers of amps into multiple cars at once, probably vastly cheaper than the cost of a single gasoline pump island and its required immense underground tanks. And this would allow customers to do two things: Make sure their car is always fully charged in the morning, even if they time shift the actual start/stop of the charging to get the lowest cost from their utility, and have a way to do a relatively quick partial charge on the road — say one third of the battery’s capacity in 20 minutes. Just time enough to run into the cafe in the Volt and Bolt for a cup of industrial strength coffee and some sort of microwaved artery clogging food item made with faux cheese.

But what are the chances we’ll see these uberbatteries in EVs? I have no idea. As best I can tell, this breakthrough is still in the “we tried it in the lab and no one was killed, so someone issue a press release while we tape Bob’s eyebrows back on” stage. To be clear, a lot of things make it to that point in a product life cycle and never get to the vaunted status of being Available In A Store Near You. There are all sorts of hurdles it still has to get over, the biggest one of all being cost. An uberbattery that does what’s claimed above but costs 10 or 20 times as much as an equivalent lithium battery, even after realizing the benefits of further research and economies of scale from mass production, is not of much interest for the mainstream transportation market. (Although I suspect some specialized applications, like military use and possibly time shifting renewable energy generation, might still be interested.)

For now I would classify this announcement in the “very promising” category, because if there’s one thing we could really use right now in the energy/climate arena it’s a gigantic breakthrough in battery technology.

Photo by malko.