New battery breakthrough could kill the petrol engine

But, as ever, it’s still a decade away from production

SCIENTISTS at Cambridge University have released a paper detailing of a new generation of lithium-air battery that might finally fulfil the electric vehicle dream of being able to match petrol-powered machines in terms of performance, weight and range.

Call us cynical but it seems that we’ve been being told for at least 20 years that we’re on the verge of a battery technology breakthrough that will transform the technology and finally make it a viable rival to the internal combustion engine. Usually, these promises are the result of theories or lab tests with the inevitable proviso that the consumer versions of the technology will still be ‘a decade away.’

So it’s no surprise that the new Cambridge technology is… a decade away from the consumer market.

Cynicism put to one side, the actual technology of the latest research is interesting. Lithium-air batteries – which create voltage by reacting oxygen from the air with positively-charged lithium ions, forming lithium peroxide and generating electricity in the process – are proven to have impressive outputs. There’s talk that the new one might be 10 times more power-dense than current lithium-ion batteries. But lithium-air cells are notoriously hard to make work, and those that do have proved to be far too unstable for real-world use.

The new Cambridge research solves the stability problems by using a ‘fluffy’ carbon electrode made from graphene. Whatever that means.

But regardless of how it’s done, the result is a battery that has an energy density that’s similar to that of petrol; in other words, a battery the size and weight of your bike’s petrol tank would be able to give it the same performance and range. That’s a Holy Grail in terms of battery performance, and means that the usual provisos (short range, high weight and low performance compared to petrol vehicles) accompanying electric vehicles would no longer need apply.

Unfortunately, while the results are promising, the researchers developing the battery say that a practical version is still a decade away, not least because it only works at certain rates of charge and discharge and at the moment requires pure oxygen rather than simply air to operate.

'What we’ve achieved is a significant advance for this technology and suggests whole new areas for research – we haven’t solved all the problems inherent to this chemistry, but our results do show routes forward towards a practical device,' said Professor Clare Grey of Cambridge’s Department of Chemistry, the paper’s senior author.

Dr Tao Liu, also from the Department of Chemistry, and the paper’s first author, said: 'There’s still a lot of work to do, but what we’ve seen here suggests that there are ways to solve these problems – maybe we’ve just got to look at things a little differently.'

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