URI chemist awarded $600,000 grant to develop longer lasting batteries for electric vehicles

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KINGSTON, R.I. – September 9, 2010 – One of the chief obstacles to the development and commercialization of the next generation of electric vehicles is the short lifespan of the present generation of batteries. The U.S. Department of Energy has awarded a University of Rhode Island chemistry professor a $600,000 grant to study why batteries degrade so quickly and how to extend their life.

“The calendar life of lithium ion batteries is one of the most problematic aspects of bringing electric vehicles to market,” said Brett Lucht, the URI chemist and lead investigator on the project. “The U.S. Automobile Battery Consortium wants a battery with a 10-year span, but the batteries available today won’t last nearly that long.”

Lithium ion batteries have greater energy density than the nickel metal hydride batteries currently used in hybrid vehicles, which means they can provide the same amount of power as batteries nearly twice their size and weight. Smaller, lighter weight batteries will help to extend the range and gas mileage of plug-in hybrid vehicles and fully electric vehicles.

Batteries currently in use in hybrid vehicles like the Toyota Prius provide just one kilowatt of electric power, whereas batteries for all-electric vehicles must provide 15 to 30 times more power.

“Most of the problems associated with the aging of batteries are due to the electrolyte – the liquid in the battery that contains dissolved salts and that allows the lithium ions to go back and forth between the electrodes,” explained Lucht.

The URI researcher and his collaborator on the grant, Daniel Abraham, a scientist at the Argonne National Laboratory in Illinois, have been collaborating on the investigation of battery electrolytes for three years.

The new grant will fund an analysis of the reaction of the electrolyte with the surface of the battery’s electrodes.

“We want to develop an understanding of calendar-life degradation of these batteries, and with that understanding we’ll then develop solutions to improve their lifespan,” Lucht said.

Lucht’s previous research has uncovered novel salts and additives for lithium ion battery electrolytes. These salts and additives have been patented and have received significant commercial interest. Additional methods to improve the calendar life of lithium battery electrolytes would be of great interest to electric vehicle manufacturers, he said.

Lucht notes that the laboratories in the new chemistry building proposed for construction at URI, which will go before the voters on Election Day in November, will make his research activities considerably more efficient and productive.

“The laboratories in the new building will have much more adequate hood space for me and my student collaborators to conduct this and other research that we believe will make a significant contribution to the electric vehicle industry and to the economic development of Rhode Island and the nation,” he said.