Ford Motor Co and the University of Michigan just announced they would open a new $88 million battery research and manufacturing lab that they hope will accelerate a much-needed breakthrough for the stalling electric auto non-boom (electric cars accounted for less than 1 per cent of US auto sales last year; hybrids 3 per cent, according to the AP). And batteries are getting the blame.
One of the first persons they should talk to is Chengdu Liang, a staff scientist at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee who was born and raised in Hunan province and came to the US about 15 years ago as a graduate student at the University of Tennessee- Knoxville, did a year of post-grad at Oak Ridge and stayed on there, becoming a staff scientist in 2006.
Since then his research has focused on the development of sustainable energy technologies. "Electrical energy storage is a very important and exciting area," he told China Daily recently, mentioning that China Daily was his favourite newspaper through his college years in Hunan.
"A sustainable energy future lies in the harvesting of intermittent renewable energies to a stable supply of electricity," he explained, in other words, "When the sun is not shining and the wind is not blowing, the supply of energy is drawing from massive storage of electricity."
And that means batteries, big batteries. "Large scale storage of electricity needs advanced battery systems that are safe, low cost, and high energy-density," Liang said.
This past summer, Liang and his team announced a major breakthrough that could have major implications for the quest for an ideal battery for electric cars, not to mention homes and hand-helds.
The secret lies in sulfur, as in lithium-sulfur. The most widely accepted technology for batteries today is lithium-ion, which is practical for consumer electronics but not for anything much bigger. "Large-scale energy storage like vehicles or the electricity grid - if you want to store energy from a solar panel or from a wind turbine - we cannot store it in a lithium-ion battery," Liang said. "It's too expensive."
With today's electric cars, he said, "one third of the price goes to the battery. If you had a vehicle and the gas tank cost one-third of the price, you would not buy that vehicle". Same goes for a battery, he said, which is really just an energy "tank".
Liang and his team had a hunch that sulfur held the answer.