the Air Vent

Because the world needs another opinion

Autumn for the Leaf? Part One

Posted by Jeff Id on June 12, 2011

If we are to achieve a truly zero carbon economy using discontinuous sources like wind, then energy storage is key.    I follow the news on this topic closely and storage advancements are coming almost daily but how far and fast will the technology progress?  – Jeff Id/Elmer Fudd

Keystone Arch


guest post by Robert Allaband

One of the sites that I peruse off and on through out the day is Instapundit ( ) because the author, Professor Glenn Reynolds, links to some very interesting stories. One that is of interest he had titled: MIT students develop liguid fuel for electric cars. He provided a link to another site called and an article about a paper released in the journal Advanced Energy Materials.

Semi-Solid Lithium Rechargeable Flow Battery

Mihai Duduta, Bryan Ho, Vanessa C. Wood, Pimpa Limthongkul,

Victor E. Brunini, W. Craig Carter, Yet-Ming Chiang*

Here is the link to the MIT press release:

Now flow batteries are nothing new you can find them in your UPS backup for your computer and you can read up on them here:

The paper goes into detail how the Semi Solid Flow Cell (SSFC), in the prototype they have, overcomes the limitations of a typical flow battery. Now the authors of the paper, specifically Dr. Ching, are not new comers to the field of making batteries for electric cars. Dr. Ching was responsible for some of the breakthroughs on Lithium Ion batteries and a co-founder of A123 Systems:

A123 Systems (NASDAQAONE)[1] develops and manufactures advanced lithium-ion (lithium iron phosphate) batteries and battery systems for the transportation, electric grid services and commercial markets. The company has 1,700 employees and is headquartered in Waltham, Massachusetts.[2]

Founded in 2001 by Dr. Yet-Ming Chiang, Dr. Bart Riley and Ric Fulop, A123 Systems’ proprietary nanoscale electrode technology is built on Massachusetts Institute of Technology research. In 2009, the company was included on the Guardian‘s “Global Cleantech 100” list.[2] </blockquote>

Now the thrust of this article isn’t in the nitty gritty of what makes (or doesn’t) a SSFC work. The thrust will be the two problems that the MIT team says the SSFC or technology similar to it will overcome that in my opinion prevent wide acceptance of electric vehicles. The first problem is just about universally recognized and gets almost all the attention: Energy Storage.

The problem in batteries is a compromise between size and capacity. Reduce the size of your battery and you also reduced the capacity of how much energy is stored and the reverse is generally true. So in a passenger vehicle you are restricted in how much maximum space a battery can take up and still be a worthwhile vehicle, competing against the need for this vehicle to have a large enough battery to give enough performance and operating time to make it a worthwhile vehicle. This has been known since the time of Edison and Ford when they tried to make a battery powered vehicle. They coudn’t overcome this problem and Ford went with the Internal Combustion Engine (ICE).

However times change and technology improves or least that is what you would think, however most of the basics of what we use in battery technology is little changed from the 1800’s. An example of this is the Nickel Cadium (NiCd) battery. Remember those?

Rechargeable batteries for your handheld electronics and power tools were first developed to use the Nickel Cadium rechargable battery. Now guess when that battery was invented? 1899. We have just miniturized it over the years with slight efficiency increases and this process was started in 1955.

The next step after that was the nickel hydrogen battery of the 1970’s for satellites which led to the next step in 1989 of the nickel metal hydride (NiMH) battery that replaced NiCd’s in most handheld electronics and power tools.

That is where we stood until modern science thought up lithium and lithium ion batteries right? Nope.

Lithium batteries were invented in 1912 and it was in 1980 that we started playing around with the Lithium Ion battery technology and they didn’t go on sale until 1991. In 1996 we came up with Lithium Ion polymer batteries.

So here we are in 2011 trying to convert from internal combustion engines (ICE) to battery driven Electric Vehicles (EV’s) with technology that is 15 years old and most of the major advances in batteries happened in the 1800’s and into the early 1900’s (1859 the lead acid battery was invented, 1899 the NiCd, 1912 the Lithium battery). Basically we have already picked the low hanging fruit and the recent advances in battery technology are just incremental in nature.

AP Photo The first practical electric car may have been built by the English inventor Thomas Parker in 1884. Photo added by Jeff

Nissan Leaf - Wikimedia Commons. Photo added by Jeff

One of the reasons for this is brought up in the paper:

However, most batteries have designs that have not departed substantially from Volta’s galvanic cell of 1800, and which accept an inherently poor utilization of the active materials.[3] Even the highest energy density lithium ion cells currently available, e.g., 2.8–2.9 Ah 18650 cells having > 600 Wh L − 1, have less than 50 vol% active material. The reduced energy density, along with higher cost, result because the high-energy-storage compounds are diluted by inactive and costly components necessary to extract power (e.g., currentcollector foils, tabs, separator film, liquid electrolyte, electrode binders and conductive additives, and external packaging). Further dilution of energy density, by about a factor of two, occurs between the cell and system level.[4] Electrode designs that minimize inactive material, bio- and self-assembly, and 3D architectures are new approaches that promise improved design efficiency but have yet to be fully realized.[5–9]<

To put it more simply, with the battery tech we use today, the battery is trying to do two jobs in one package: Storage and Delivery and neither one to its best advantage. The space and materials used to get the power in and out of a rechargable battery takes away from how much storage capacity that battery has. It doesn’t matter if the battery is a Lithium Ion from 2011 or a Lead Acid from 1860, that limitation is built in since both use the same basic principals. To get a large increase in battery performance we need to separate the jobs of storage and delivery.

Redox flow batteries are designed to overcome those type of limitations by separating the storage and delivery components of the system, but have a limitation of their own: parasitic mechanical losses. Basically the energy required to pump the liguid around detracts from the battery systems efficiency. Because the liquid medium in a redox flow battery has a low density energy storage it limits the uses of them. That is where the SSFC style technology comes in, they use the best of both systems, the decoupling of storage and delivery of a flow battery with the high desity aspects of lithium.

What does this mean in an EV if it all pans out? You are able to significantly increase the range/performance of the EV with out a significant increase of space used or in weight. It also means instead of having to replace the entire battery system if something goes “bad” you can just replace a smaller part at much lower cost thus increasing the worth of the EV years down the road. On the practicle side it removes one big sticking point for a lot of people when it comes to EV’s: No need to plug in and wait hours to be ready to go.

We show that in addition to energy density advantages, the SSFCs can operate at low flow rates with very low mechanical energy dissipation. The design flexibility inherent in the SSFC approach may enable new use-models for electrical storage, such as rapid refueling of vehicles by fuel or fuel tank exchange, tuning of suspensions as needed for power, energy, and operating temperature, and extension of service life by renewing suspension chemistry or incorporating serviceable system components.

Unlike the Lithium Ion battery, the SSFC’s medium of energy storage is contained in a separate tank from the solid and fixed anodes and cathodes. This in turn means you are dealing basically with a liguid material that can be pumped in and out of a fixed tank or replaced via a modular tank system (Fuel Cell system). If this sounds like a familiar system of energy transfer it should, it’s the way we fuel ICE vehicles today. The only difference is that the energy medium is not burned up as you get with Gas or Diesel, instead you have to pump that out first before you refill. However there is already systems used for vehicles on the market that can be converted to that type of use. They are used by mechanics that maintain large fleets of vehicles to remove the used oil from them. Basically you just remove the drain plug from the pan and replace it with an adapter that ends in a quick connect fitting. That fitting is used by a vacuum system to pull the used oil out of the drain pan and into a collection tank for recycling. See the link provided on how the system works and it has been around since 1999.

Just convert that for use for the SSFC medium. After that pump in the new liguid and away you go. A system like that could have you on the road in as little as 2 to 5 minutes.

This system also solves the second and much less talked about problem with EV’s: Infrastructure.

This will be covered in the second part.

8 Responses to “Autumn for the Leaf? Part One”

  1. Brian H said

    Good article re impact on EVs, aside from some inaccurate generalizations about LiIon progress — MIT and Stanford have some 5-10X breakthroughs working in the lab, easily transferred to actual product (electrode and internal channel modifications).

    As for large-scale storage of intermittent power source output, the size and cost of any such storage still leaves it out in La-La Land.

  2. kuhnkat said

    Nanowire was announced over 3 years ago. I guess we are still waiting to see whether any manufacturer thinks they can economically build with this breakthrough that is “easily transferred to actual product.” Of course there are still the issues of building plants and adapting the technology to existing and future products. Oh, and there is also still the issue of charging all these potential batteries. Continued pushing of Green generation will really make cars with batteries a disaster!!

    Just imagine millions of cars driving to work and being plugged into the grid for a recharge in the morning just as the normal power usage increases. Will the wind be blowing? Will the sun be shining? Even if they are, without more coal, gas, and nukes… Why am I so pessimistic all the time?

  3. boballab said

    #2 Brian H

    MIT and Stanford have some 5-10X breakthroughs working in the lab, easily transferred to actual product (electrode and internal channel modifications)

    Brian I am aware of the Stanford research that came out in 2007 that is the basis of that 5-10x claim, however the earliest that the inventor, Dr. Cui, came up with for implementing that technology in EV’s is 2012:

    What timeline do you think it would take before your technology could be incorporated into a commercial product?
    I am working on it. As a rough timeline, I would say perhaps 5 years.

    As of this 15 Sep 2010 article they still haven’t come up with a production battery yet:

    Thinner electronics that can last for days without recharging and electric cars that can go hundreds of miles between fill ups: These are some of the benefits that could result if lithium-ion battery startup Amprius delivers on its promise to enable batteries with four times more energy density (the amount of energy that can be stored in a battery of a given size) compared to today’s state of the art technology. The key, according to Amprius, is a silicon nanostructured anode, or a material that draws in the lithium ions when a battery recharges.

    Amprius, whose investors include Google CEO Eric Schmidt, VantagePoint Venture Partners, and Stanford University, remains at an early stage of development.


    With this platform, Amprius expects to be able to “put a protoype product on the table” by the first quarter of 2011 for device makers to consider for use in phones and other electronics. It’s also a step toward batteries for electric vehicles, and potentially grid storage or military applications.

    As to the MIT 2009 breakthrough it also isn’t used in EV’s because of the second problem that gets discussed in Part 2: Infrastructure

    The study notes that residences cannot draw enough energy from the electrical grid to quickly charge a hybrid car’s battery containing the new material, though smaller batteries for gadgets and perhaps power tools should not have that catch. But future roadside plug-in stations (service stations selling electricity instead of gasoline) with greater power pull could do the trick for vehicles, Kang says.

    So as of now the Plug in EV’s are still using the old technology.

  4. boballab said

    Also here is a link to the the Leaf’s promo video on how “advanced” their battery tech is:

    In it you find they came up with their initial model in 1997 and in the time since then they have advanced to double it’s performance while making it smaller.

    As to the volt’s battery it’s based on 1990’s government research:

    The story begins in the late 1990s, when the DOE Office of Science funded an intensive study of lithium-ion batteries. “Existing materials weren’t good enough for a high-range vehicle,” explained Michael Thackeray, an Argonne National Laboratory researcher who is one of the holders of the original patent. “The Argonne materials take a big step forward in extending the range for an electric vehicle.”

    As for the Tesla:

    The battery pack in the Tesla Roadster is the result of innovative systems engineering and 20 years of advances in Lithium-ion cell technology. Tesla’s ingenious battery pack architecture enables world-class acceleration, safety, range, and reliability. The non-toxic pack is built at Tesla’s Headquarters in Northern California.

    As you can see in all three cases what is in the vehicles today is based on tech developed in the early 90’s, just with a tweaks to it nothing of real radical breakthrough nature.

  5. steve fitzpatrick said

    Interesting post.

    If it were possible to eliminate nearly all the volumetric penalty by pumping active liquid components into a fixed (energy extracting) core, with that core very modest in size, then you might achieve double the volumetric energy density of today’s best lithium cells. That is, you might reach storage density approaching 1.2 KwHr per liter of storage volume. Assuming you need ~20 horse power (about about 14 Kw) to power a modest size car at highway speeds (65 MPH), that would suggest you would need about 11.7 liters of storage medium per hour of driving. Or equivalent to ~21 miles per gallon of storage medium, which doesn’t sound too bad, since a similar sized gasoline powered car would have ~35 miles of range per gallon of gasoline volume. A 300 mile range in an optimized electric car based on this technology would require ~15 gallons storage medium, which sounds reasonable. At 0.15 per KwHr, the energy cost works out to $0.032 per mile, compared to about $0.11 per mile for gasoline.

    But the devil is always in the details. Cost savings for fuel over an assumed lifetime of 200,000 miles is: $6,400 versus $22,000, or $15,600. So even ignoring the time value of money (which is nuts, of course), the up-front additional cost for such an electric car would have to be within ~$15,000 of a comparable gasoline powered car….. which seems unlikely any time soon. Only pushing gasoline prices (via shortage or taxes) to German or British levels would make this kind of car economically sensible. But economically sensible for an individual does not consider the investment in electrical generating and distribution capacity that would be needed to power many millions of electric cars.

    Whether or not an electric car makes any real difference in CO2 emissions depends, of course, on how the electricity is produced. Ban nukes and burn coal to make that extra electricity, and the whole exercise is at best silly, and a huge waste of capital, at least from the POV of CO2. Substitute non-nuclear alternatives like wind and solar, and the cost for electricity makes an electric car comparable in operating cost to a gasoline powered car….. and triples electricity cost for all other uses.

  6. j ferguson said

    It’s interesting that you get to carry the used and unused media around with you, rather than with fossil fueled vehicles only the full load at the beginning. I’t also seems likely that home recharging requirements of electric vehicles might inhibit their adoption, better going to the fuel exchange whenever energy is needed. if this stuff is really viscous, sucking it out of the car might not be the simple thing it seems, although if the hose was big enough????

    I keep wondering if all this scheming to make cars run on “other” fuels is no different from trying to get horses to eat something else in 1890. Maybe “fixing” the car isn’t the answer.

    And please don’t assume I’m thinking of some socialist mass-transit scheme.

  7. boballab said


    If you hit the link to the MIT press release there is a picture of a vial containing the medium they are using dubbed “Cambridge Crude”. Something to keep in mind the material is not one medium and one tank but actually two (there is a diagram showing this in the actual paper). One a cathode solution and the other a anode solution, they are then pumped into and through a fixed cell. The MIT team has already done this and it didn’t require huge hoses just a small pump. So I wouldn’t expect too much trouble draining the spent fluid using the oil extraction system that I linked in the post since it is designed to get out oil from a car.

  8. Auto Expert…

    […]Autumn for the Leaf? Part One « the Air Vent[…]…

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