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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 

The second biggest award, Rs.30.80 crore ($6.9 million), was for another grid-battery project at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Called Electroville, the liquid battery technology is designed to buffer usage fluctuations in neighbourhoods, much as a bypass capacitor does for printed-circuit boards.

Arizona State University (Tempe), meanwhile, has a Rs.22.32 crore ($5 million) Arpa-E-funded project under way to perfect metal-air ionic liquid batteries that substitute earth-abundant materials for the rare lithium used in hybrid vehicles today, with a promise to increase the range of electric vehicles to almost 1,000 miles while potentially decreasing the cost compared with those incurred by today's grid-recharged vehicles.

Two other Arpa-E-funded efforts are aimed at improving the performance and lowering the cost of today's state-of-the-art lithium-ion batteries. A Rs.17.86 crore ($4 million) project at Envia Systems (Hayward, Calif.) aims to increase the energy density of Li-ion from 150Wh/kg to more than 400Wh/kg through the use of nanopatterned silicon-carbon electrodes. And a nearly Rs.8.93 crore ($2 million) project at Inorganic Specialists Inc. (Miamisburg, Ohio) is developing silicon-coated carbon nanofibre paper material that promises to boost the storage capacity of Li-on batteries fourfold.

None of these efforts, however, hold a candle to the promise of Cambridge Crude, the Arpa-E funded effort at 24M Technologies Inc., a Rs.11.16 crore ($2.5 million) project to perfect a battery technology for all-electric vehicles that would turn electrons into a fuel that could be pumped like diesel or gas. The ultimate aim is to render petrol obsolete.

Why now?
Electric vehicles' popularity is tempered today by their limited range, their long recharge times and the poor long-term reliability of their batteries compared with that of internal-combustion engines. Cambridge Crude aims to solve all three problems with a synthetic fuel that can be stored in a tank, comparable in driving-range capacity to petrol tanks, and pumped at a "gas" station using existing infrastructure. The technology offers reliability rivalling that of internal-combustion engines by moving into the liquid fuel the parts that wear out in batteries.

24M Technologies, a spinoff of nearby Watertown-based A123 Systems Inc., is working feverishly to commercialise Cambridge Crude under the tutelage of MIT professor Yet-Ming Chiang, who founded both companies.

 Research team members

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

Chiang's aim is nothing less than to reinvent the rechargeable battery through liquid-fuel technology. "Cambridge Crude has a chemical composition designed to simultaneously allow the exchange of lithium ions internally between the cathode and the anode of the battery, and then transfer those electrons to the current collectors and out to an external circuit, where they perform useful electrical work," he said.

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