Researchers at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico have discovered a pathway for developing low cost electric vehicle batteries, which could lead to a new generation of affordable EVs. The team has come up with a new nanostructured carbon-based catalyst that looks like something you’d mop up off the kitchen floor, but the important point is that it does not require platinum or other precious metals. When the new catalyst is paired with lithium-air technology, the result could be ten times the storage capacity of conventional lithium-ion batteries at a fraction of the price. So go ahead, fellow taxpayers, give yourselves a nice pat on the back: we built this!
A Low Cost Carbon-Based EV Battery
The new catalyst is based on carbon nanotubes altered or “doped” with nitrogen, which the team has labelled N-Fe-CNT/CNP (CNT for carbon nanotube and CNP for carbon nanoparticle).
Carbon is a relatively cheap material, but the use of a carbon-based material only tackles part of the problem. Processing carbon nanotubes with nitrogen into a usable form typically involves significant expense as well as the use of toxic and hazardous substances.
As described in a recently published article in Nature, the Los Alamos team developed a workaround that problem, which enabled them to synthesize their catalyst in a simple, one-step process using iron acetate
Although there is a long way to go before the catalyst is ready for commercial development, the results so far are promising based on the level of oxygen reduction reaction (ORR) activity, which is a critical measurement of energy storage efficiency. According to the research team, the ORR activity of their N-doped carbon nanotube catalyst is the highest of any similar carbon-based catalysts currently under development, and under certain conditions it can exceed that of platinum-based catalysts.
EV Batteries and EV Affordability
Though the cost of EV batteries has been dropping, the high cost of EV batteries is still the key obstacle standing between you and all-electric personal mobility, at least in terms of affordability. EV batteries currently cost $10,000 and up. Compared to the cost of a gas tank, which is negligible, that has a huge effect on the final price of a car.
A good chunk of that expense involves the catalysts used in lithium-ion EV batteries, which typically rely on precious metals including platinum.
While research continues apace at Los Alamos, last year the Obama Administration launched a coordinated research effort along a number of other pathways with the aim of getting advanced energy storage technology, including low cost EV batteries, into commercial development. That initiative is taking place under the umbrella of JCESR, the Joint Center for Energy Storage Research based at Argonne National Laboratory in Illinois.
Also contributing to the ramping up of the domestic EV battery market is a web of new battery manufacturing facilities established in the Rust Belt with help from the Recovery Act of 2009.