$3M Government Lab Aims To Amp Up Electric Batteries

The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) is pouring $3 million into a new research and development facility that is aimed at improving the efficiency of electric car batteries.

The facility is located at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) and according to the DOE, its twin goals are to reduce cost while at the same time increasing power.

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image via Ford

It is the nation’s largest open access battery manufacturing R&D facility, the DOE said, and so far battery manufacturers, chemical and materials suppliers, system integrators and original equipment manufacturers have been invited into the lab. ORNL has already established contracts with 8 different battery-related companies.

There is a sore need for improved technology in batteries that will bring down cost and reduce the quantity of materials used in their manufacture.

Batteries are one of the most expensive components in electric cars, in part because of the relative scarcity of some of the materials they are made from.

The batteries contain rare earth metals, which have become increasingly expensive as demand increases. Meanwhile the supply of the metals has come under pressure since China, where 95 percent of them originate, has begun imposing quotas on their exports.

In order to counter this cost car makers like Honda has begun recycling the rare earth metals from old batteries and reintegrating into new ones.

The lab comprises two chambers totaling 1,400 square feet of space.

The chambers themselves contain state-of-the-art battery manufacturing equipment. One of them allows researchers to maintain humidity levels of between 0.5 and 15 percent and features equipment that allows for the mixing of various slurries, stabilization, coating and drying.

In the other chamber the humidity is kept down to almost zero thanks to a dew point of -40 degrees Celsius. The extreme dryness is needed to stop moisture from getting into the battery cells and degrading them.

The maximum capacity of the batteries created on the site is 7 ampere-hours, a size which permits good demonstration capability but needs less material.

Paul Willis has been journalist for a decade. Starting out in Northern England, from where he hails, he worked as a reporter on regional papers before graduating to the cut-throat world of London print media. On the way he spent a year as a correspondent in East Africa, writing about election fraud, drought and an Ethiopian version of American Idol. Since moving to America three years ago he has worked as a freelancer, working for CNN.com and major newspapers in Britain, Australia and North America. He writes on subjects as diverse as travel, media ethics and human evolution. He lives in New York where, in spite of the car fumes and the sometimes eccentric driving habits of the yellow cabs, he rides his bike everywhere.