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Electrons used as fuel for all-electric vehicles

Posted: 22 Jul 2011     Print Version  Bookmark and Share

Keywords:pumpable fuel  internal combustion engine  gas station  electrons 

Cambridge Crude, a Rs.11.16 crore ($2.5 million) Arpa-E funded effort at 24M Technologies Inc. (Cambridge, Mass.) aims to render petrol obsolete with a battery technology for all-electric vehicles that would turn electrons into a fuel that could be pumped like diesel or petrol.

Electronics has already transformed society. By harnessing electricity to perform the operations that were once performed manually, computers have made obsolete legions of mechanical devices, from adding machines to carburettors. 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.

Indeed, if an ambitious start-up with MIT roots and DOE funding has its way, within five years you may see a new pump, labelled Cambridge Crude, appear next to those for the lead-free and diesel at your local service station.

Liquid electrolyte

Cambridge Crude (in bottle) is a liquid electrolyte that flows through a reactor, where a copper electrode (top) and an aluminium electrode (bottom) extract electrons to power an electric motor or any other dc load. The reactor draws the electrons as they blow through its centre. The nanoscale carbon particles in the liquid complete the circuit between the Cu and Al collectors. SOURCE: MIT.

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 batteries achieve 3.6V per cell, albeit at a trade-off of a much higher cost per kilowatt-hour.

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.

Though the battery landscape hasn't changed much in 200 years, it hasn't been for lack of trying. Since 2009, the Department of Energy's Advanced Research Projects Agency for Energy (Arpa-E) has averaged more than Rs.1,562.50 crore ($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 Rs.2,232.14 ($50)/kWh cost point that would permit widespread commercialisation.

In its report for fiscal year 2010, Arpa-E indicates that one of the biggest awards was for a Rs.32.14 crore ($7.2 million) effort at EaglePicher Technologies LLC (Joplin, Mo.), 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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