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Lexington plugs in to battery research

Although U.S. universities and laboratories are among the leaders in testing ways to build more efficient batteries for electric cars, the country is getting collectively whipped by Asian firms when it comes to building them.

Nearly all lithium-ion batteries — the technology of choice for the budding electric vehicle industry — are made in Korea, Japan and China.

Officials and scientists hope the newly announced Battery Manufacturing Research and Development Center that is planned for north Lexington will be the great equalizer.

"We think if we could fill that manufacturing research and development gap, that would be one way we could bring the industry to the U.S.," said Mark Peters, deputy associate laboratory director for energy science and engineering at Argonne National Laboratory.

So the goal isn't just to build a better battery, it's to build one that can be mass produced at a cheaper rate than early varieties, which can cost up to $15,000 each.

The Illinois-based national laboratory, which specializes in science and engineering, is joining the University of Kentucky and University of Louisville to form the new battery manufacturing research center. Officials announced the venture, which will have about 20 employees, on April 8.

Over the next six months, the state will convert a white 1970s-era office building near UK's Center for Applied Energy Research off Iron Works Pike into a lab to test new battery chemistry and methods of manufacturing them efficiently and cheaply.

"That's the sweet spot that we're trying to go after," Peters said.

Argonne officials have been tinkering with lithium-ion battery technology for years. Last fall, Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear, UK President Lee T. Todd Jr. and U of L President James R. Ramsey trekked to Argonne, Ill., to see about joining forces on some type of research.

Several faculty at both universities had worked on battery technology, and U of L has a team of about 15 who have experimented with new combinations of metals to use in lithium-ion batteries.

Both universities — particularly UK — offered expertise in developing manufacturing techniques with robotics, especially for the auto industry.

"That's how we focused in after a month of conversations on what we wanted to emphasize," said Len Peters, secretary of the state Energy and Environment Cabinet.

Len Peters is the father of Argonne's Mark Peters, who was assigned by Argonne's director Robert Rosner to oversee the lab's participation in the battery manufacturing center.

The $5 million to $8 million provided by the state for renovations of the Lexington facility comes just as Kentucky competes to land a $600 million advanced battery manufacturing consortium in Hardin County. Having a battery R&D center less than 100 miles away would be a key selling point, Len Peters said.

In addition, President Barack Obama has called for one million plug-in hybrid cars to be on the road by 2015 and has put up $1.5 billion for car makers to produce highly efficient batteries.

The consortium of battery makers that wants to locate in Kentucky is competing with several companies in Michigan for a slice of the federal stimulus money set aside for battery production.

Battery technology

Lithium-ion batteries already power many small electronic devices, such as laptop computers and cell phones.

Now, they're being pegged for the next generation of electric-hybrid cars, such as the Chevrolet Volt.

Such hybrid models use an electric motor to idle and drive at low speeds, then switch to a gasoline-fueled internal combustion engine for higher speeds.

Lithium-ion batteries are ideal because they can be plugged into the electric grid for recharging.

The goal within the next five years is to build batteries that can get a car 40 miles on a single charge, said Stephen M. Lipka, a carbon materials expert at UK's Center for Applied Energy Research.

"The ultimate goal would be to have a battery for an all-electric vehicle that could be charged up with a 120-volt AC outlet that you can drive 200-300 miles — roughly equal to what you get on a tank of gas," Lipka said.

To achieve that, Lipka said he expects the new center will look beyond lithium-ion technology to new concepts in the future.

Researchers also are working on configuring batteries to recharge quickly. It takes at least a full night to fully charge current models of lithium-ion battery technology.

Finding a chemistry

The key to maximizing the number of miles a battery can power a vehicle will be finding the optimum combination of other metals in the chambers of a battery that store lithium, Lipka said.

To generate electric current, the lithium ions shift from one compartment to the other, much like sand moving in an hourglass.

Graphite is now commonly used to collect the lithium ions in a chamber of the battery.

At U of L, chemical engineering professor Mahendra K. Sunkara and his team of researchers published a paper in January showing that tin could be used instead of graphite. The new battery research center will explore whether other combinations can be easily replicated on a mass scale.

"That's the whole point. We know we have this idea and concept," Sunkara said. "Now we want to take ... several different materials that could possibly give twice or even three times the capacity that we can get out of tin."

Sunkara's team includes three faculty, 10 graduate students, a research technologist and a senior research scientist, he said. The group will probably split time between U of L and the battery center.

UK will probably have five faculty working at the center, Lipka said.

Other tests the center intends to conduct include how such batteries would survive under duress. Overcharging a lithium-ion battery can sometimes cause what scientists call "thermal runaway," Lipka said. In other words, it bursts into flames.

Current lithium car batteries cost $1,000 per kilowatt-hour, Lipka said. The aim is to have 15 kilowatt-hour batteries for most vehicles, which would put the price at $15,000.

Lipka said it's realistic to expect batteries that eventually cost $250 per kilowatt hour.

Lithium, which is the lightest metal on the periodic table, is found in heavy concentrations in North and South America, particularly in Bolivia.

Perhaps 60 percent to 80 percent of lithium in batteries can be recycled, Len Peters said.

In fact, Lipka said a representative from a Virginia company is coming to UK next month to discuss lithium's recycling potential.

Still, the future of the U.S. industry largely hinges on what kind of production lines can be built.

"If we are not successful there," Len Peters said, "cheap labor is going to beat us every time."