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The Future of Electric Vehicles and Arizona State University’s MAIL Battery

August 11, 2010 - 4:26pm

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Cody Friesen and his team at Arizona State University | Photo Credit Arizona State University

Cody Friesen and his team at Arizona State University | Photo Credit Arizona State University

Electric Vehicles are becoming a reality. Last month, the President got behind the wheel of a Chevy Volt in Michigan, and traveled to Smith Electric’s new electric vehicle manufacturing plant in Kansas City. And a few weeks ago, the Department of Energy hosted an Electric Vehicle Cities Workshop – putting the minds of government officials, automotive industry representatives, and electric vehicle technology innovators all together in the same room.

One of those potentially revolutionary innovations is the Metal Air Ionic Liquid (MAIL) Battery – an ARPA-E funded project out of Arizona State.

Electric Vehicles (or EVs) are very different than cars as we know them. Rather than having a car with an engine, a gas tank, and a small battery to start the engine, an EV is a singular unit with electric motors driving the wheels full time, entirely replacing the engine and gas tank.  In between the EV and regular cars is the increasingly ubiquitous hybrid (such as the Toyota Prius), which is essentially two cars in one – a normal gasoline-powered car engine supplemented by a short-range electric battery and electric motors to help move the car forward (about 2 miles).  The primary benefit of the hybrid’s electric battery is that the electric battery is able to recapture forward motion while braking.

EVs on the market today, such as the Volt and the Nissan Leaf, have ranges of 40 miles and 100 miles respectively before recharging is necessary (recharging usually takes about 8 hours).  In contrast, your average gasoline-powered car averages about 300 miles before it is time to fill up the tank.  This huge disparity is the key weakness for today’s EVs, and in fact the Volt in particular has a gasoline powered generator to recharge the motor to allow for distances greater than 40 miles.  The goal is to build a cost-effective EV with at least a comparable range to gasoline-powered vehicles – or better.

Enter Dr. Cody Friesen, his team at Arizona State University, and a $5 million Recovery Act grant. Their MAIL battery project seeks to create an ultra high-energy density and ultra low-cost battery technology that uses only earth-abundant materials.  In other words, Dr. Friesen’s team is working to create the best ionic liquid (which stores the energy in the battery) with the ability to recharge at least 1000 times and a low cost due to its composition of only domestically-sourced, earth abundant materials. Using domestically-sourced materials becomes especially important with the key component of current electric batteries being lithium – which is only found in three places in the world in any significant amounts (China, Bolivia, and recently in Afghanistan).  A transition from gasoline to electric batteries is hardly beneficial if the U.S. is merely trading one foreign dependency for another.

If Dr. Friesen’s team is successful, you could be driving an EV with a range approaching 1000 miles and with the cost of recharging only about 1/10th of the cost of filling up a tank of gas.  You could recharge your EV at night or visit a recharging station, where you could replace the ionic liquid in the EV battery.  It would be a radical shift in transportation as we know it.

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