MIT researchers create 'refillable' electric vehicle batteries

A new battery design which could make it possible to refuel electric vehicles in the same way as traditional cars has been unveiled by academics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Boston, US.

The new approach replaces the traditional solid materials inside a battery with tiny particles, which are carried inside a "gooey" liquid the scientists have dubbed "Cambridge crude."

By using liquids, the team has separated the functions of a battery - storing energy, and discharging it - into separate physical structures, something which makes the batteries more efficient and should reduce the size of a battery system by about a half.

This in itself could be a huge boost for electric vehicles, which are burdened by exceptionally heavy battery packs (the Nissan Leaf's pack weighs nearly 300 kg), but researchers say that a refillable battery pack would also be a possibility.

"Such a system would permit the possibility of simply 'refueling' the battery by pumping out the liquid slurry and pumping in a fresh, fully charged replacement, or by swapping out the tanks like tires at a pit stop, while still preserving the option of simply recharging the existing material when time permits," said a statement from MIT.

Although liquid-flow batteries have existed in the past, the new design offers a 10-fold improvement in the "energy density" of the liquid, as well as being cheaper to make than the conventional lithium-ion batteries used in the electric vehicles of today.

The researchers, Mihai Duduta and Bryan Ho, believe that the new battery technology could be the key to making electric vehicles fully competitive with their gas-powered equivalents - and it's something which is on many minds in the world of electric vehicles.

Last year, a study by the Boston Consulting Group said that without a breakthrough in technology, the costs of batteries would limit the widespread adoption of electric cars this decade.

The firm's Xavier Mosquet said at the time that although people believe that batteries hold the key to reducing society's dependence on fossil fuels, "the reality is electric-car batteries are both too expensive and too technologically limited for this to happen in the foreseeable future."

Although it's likely to be years before "Cambridge crude" is at the filling station, automakers and EV enthusiasts will be hoping that MIT's new design is the breakthrough they've been waiting for.

Read the paper (subscription required): http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/aenm.201100152/abstract

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