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Pumpable electrons to drive gasoline into oblivion?

Posted: 06 Sep 2011 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:pumpable fuels? lithium-ion batteries? electric vehicles?

Electronics is a great contributing factor in changing our society. By using electricity in performing operations and tasks that were previously done manually, computers have pushed aside and made obsolete legions of mechanical devices such as adding machines and carburetors.

Now electronics is poised to replace the gas-guzzling internal combustion engine with electric motors driven by pumpable fuels that bear electrons as their active elements.

In this report
??Investing on battery research
??Why now?
??Traditional batteries vs. flow batteries
??Cambridge Crude technology

Indeed, if an ambitious startup with Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) roots and U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) funding has its way, within five years you may see a new pump, labeled Cambridge Crude, appear next to those for the lead-free and diesel at your local service station.

Ever since Italian physicist Alessandro Volta invented the electrochemical cell in 1792, voltage per cell has been restricted by the chemical reaction. The typical limit for the vast majority of battery chemistries is 1.5V; modern lithium-ion (Li-ion) batteries achieve 3.6V per cell, albeit at a tradeoff of a much higher cost per kilowatt-hour.

Flow battery for electric cars

The Fraunhofer Institute for Chemical Technology is developing a flow battery for electric cars.
Source: Fraunhofer

The term battery predates even Volta's work. It was coined by Benjamin Franklin, who in 1748 used Leyden jars to capture electrons discharged during lightning storms, yielding what were effectively the first manmade capacitors. Franklin came up with the idea of wiring individual cells in series to vault the voltage-per-cell barrier. Volta subsequently wired his own electrochemical cells into series, which he called piles. Unfortunately, this description of common battery structures is as true today as it was in the 19th century; wiring cells in series remains the only way to boost voltage, at the cost of limiting the battery's overall reliability to that of its weakest cell.

Research team developing Cambridge Crude

Members of the research team developing Cambridge Crude have included (L to R) recent doctoral candidate Mihai Duduta, professor Craig Carter, doctoral candidate Bryan Ho and professor Yet-Ming Chiang.
MIT Photo by: Dominick Reuter

Investing on battery research
Though the battery landscape hasn't changed much in 200 years, it hasn't been for lack of trying. Since 2009, the DOE's Advanced Research Projects Agency for Energy (Arpa-E) has averaged more than $350 million in funding per year for investments in hundreds of three-year projects. Experiments thus abound to improve battery technology, but none has yet achieved energy densities anywhere near the $50/kWh cost point that would permit widespread commercialization.

In its report for fiscal year 2010, Arpa-E indicates that one of the biggest awards was for a $7.2 million effort at EaglePicher Technologies LLC, in cooperation with Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, to develop a planar version of the tubular high-temperature sodium beta battery that would increase that battery technology's reliability and lower its currently high cost for large-scale grid storage applications.

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