Researchers from Imperial College London, their European partners, and the Volvo Car Corporation, are expanding development of a prototype battery material which can store and discharge electrical energy.  The material is also strong and lightweight enough to be used for car parts and can be shaped to fit into panels as needed.

Battery Material That Holds Charge. Click image for the largest view. The light is lower left on the switch box.

The researchers expect that this material could be used in hybrid electric vehicles to make them lighter, more compact and more energy efficient, enabling drivers to travel for longer distances before needing to recharge the car.  The researchers believe the material, which has already been patented by Imperial, could potentially be used for the casings of many everyday objects such as mobile phones and computers, so that they would not need a separate battery. This would make such devices smaller, more lightweight and more portable.

Dr Emile Greenhalgh, project coordinator the Department of Aeronautics at Imperial College London, says, “We are really excited about the potential of this new technology. We think the car of the future could be drawing power from its roof, its bonnet (hood) or even the door, thanks to our new composite material. Even the Sat Nav (Satellite Navigation) could be powered by its own casing. The future applications for this material don’t stop there – you might have a mobile phone that is as thin as a credit card because it no longer needs a bulky battery, or a laptop that can draw energy from its casing so it can run for a longer time without recharging. We’re at the first stage of this project and there is a long way to go, but we think our composite material shows real promise.”

The next step is the scientists are planning to develop the composite material so that it can be used to replace the metal flooring in the car boot (trunk), called the wheel (spare tire) well, which holds the spare wheel. Volvo is investigating the possibility of fitting this wheel well component into prototype cars for testing purposes.  The team says replacing a metal wheel well with a composite one could enable Volvo to reduce the number of batteries needed to power the electric motor. Their calculations lead them to believe incorporating the material broadly could lead to a 15 per cent reduction in the car’s overall weight, which should significantly improve the range of future hybrid cars.

The College press release explains, “Current hybrid cars consist of an internal combustion engine, which is used when the driver accelerates the car, and an electric motor powered by batteries, which turns on when the car is cruising. The cars need a large number of batteries to power the electric motor, which makes the vehicle heavier, meaning that the car uses up more energy and the batteries need regular recharging at short intervals.”

All very interesting, and then they’re adding these points:

  • The researchers say that the composite material that they are developing, which is made of carbon fibers and a polymer resin, will store and discharge large amounts of energy much more quickly than conventional batteries.
  • The material does not use chemical processes, making it quicker to recharge than conventional batteries. It’s beginning to sound a lot like a capacitor now.
  • The recharging process causes little degradation in the composite material, because it does not involve a chemical reaction, whereas conventional batteries degrade over time.
  • The material charging research includes plugging a hybrid car into household power supply and the researchers are also exploring other alternatives for charging it such as recycling energy created when a car brakes.

The press release is not filled with lots of information, but does offer some small insight on the build process.  While answering the Volvo request for workable units for their research, the scientists are planning to further develop their composite material so that it can store more energy. The team will improve the material’s mechanical properties by growing carbon nanotubes on the surface of the carbon fibers, which should also increase the surface area of the material, which would improve its capacity to store more energy.

Following that are plans to investigate the most effective method for manufacturing the composite material at an industrial level.

It seems the concept is moving right along.  Offering up that parts of a car’s bodywork could one day double up as its battery – changes the perspective on battery integration.  It doesn’t even have to be a lot of total capacity.  The press release hints that there are capacitor aspects to the material.  This is a very different take on carrying along energy.

The body panels of an automobile built in the combined frame or chassis with much of the bodywork and supports, called “unibody” construction, might offer a considerable amount of storage.  It promises to be interesting when kWh numbers in competitive storage values with the building costs of conventional body parts plus the savings in vehicle mass are compared to the new material’s kWh and build costs.  The Brits may very well have something here.  Carbon fiber by itself hasn’t been shown to be competitive yet.  Charging carbon fiber up might just make the competitive grade or better.

The support list is noteworthy; this is serious research.  The program is in its third year and now includes researchers from the Departments of Chemistry, Aeronautics and Chemical Engineering and Chemical Technology at Imperial College London. The European academic and industrial partners include Swerea SICOMP, INASCO Hella, Chalmers, Advanced Composites Group, Nanocyl, Volvo Car Corporation, Bundesanstalt Fur Material forschung undprufung, ETC Battery and Fuel Cells Sweden.

One is just eager to know, what does a given unit of this stuff holds in amp hour power?


3 Comments so far

  1. Fernando Coty on August 1, 2010 1:25 PM

    Incredible, that’s exactly what I was shooting for! You just saved me a lot of work.

  2. tchibo gutschein on August 3, 2010 9:23 PM

    cool 🙂

  3. Paul Lamay on October 4, 2010 8:44 AM

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