Flow Batteries Could Let You Fill Up Your Tank With Electricity

When we think of electric cars, we tend to think fo zippy little vehicles that are recharged by plugging them in and waiting for the battery to be topped off. But some students at MIT think they can change that with a system that lets you fill up your tank with a liquid that gets you back on the road quickly, and fully charged.

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It’s called a semi solid flow cell, and it is built on a oozing black substance the researchers have christened “cambridge crude.” Far from being anything like oil, it is comprised mostly of solid particles suspended in fluid. These particles carry the battery’s charge and are cycled through the battery system as it discharges.

In an electric car powered by such a battery, drivers would have more options for how to recharge. They could pull in and refill the tank with fresh, fully charged fluid while the spent fluid is syphoned out for recharging. Drivers could still recharge their cars themselves at their homes or recharging stations, using the normal plug-in process as well. The advantage of swapping the fluid out is that it could be done much, much faster than plug-in charging, perhaps increasing the range of electric vehicles.

The principle behind such flow batteries has been around for quite some time. However, they were not as powerful as their solid cousins, and required larger, heavier apparatus to equal their output. The MIT team’s take on the flow battery has produced an energy density ten times that of existing models, and at a lower production cost than lithium-ion batteries. The team also says that their battery design is very flexible, and can use a variety of different compounds in the fluid.

The team believes that their design can also improve vehicle efficiency because it is more space efficient than existing batteries, perhaps reducing the load carried by electric cars. While heavy batteries proved to be an advantage during the crash testing of the Nissan Leaf and Chevy Volt, less weight means greater performance and perhaps increased range.

Their initial research complete, the team hopes to bring their technology to market, and have already raised over $16 million in federal grants, including some from ARPA-E, and venture capital investors to help do it. Though it will surely be a while before cambridge crude makes its debut on the road, this technology seems to have some real game-changing potential behind it.

(MIT via The Escapist)


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