energy insights

Heavy-duty solutions on the way for electric vehicle industry

If you haven’t noticed, the whispering that started 20 years ago has grown into a full-throated roar over electric vehicles.

Electric vehicles are busting free of their niche market confines and are galloping into the mainstream, led by a herd of electric pickup trucks. Of course, Tesla is in the mix, but brands as old as the automobile itself have dogs in this hunt, including Ford, Chevy, and GMC. And these pickups are not futuristic dreams anymore. Most will be on the market by 2022 or 2023, and some will have sticker prices similar to their traditional cousins.

One thing we know about car manufacturers is that they weren’t born yesterday, even Tesla, so if they’re going all in on pickups, they must feel pretty good about the state of battery technology right now. It’s one thing to power a car 400 miles on a single charge, but taking a full-sized pickup that far is another matter. Judging from what’s going on with battery research right now, car makers may not be blowing smoke.

The U.S. Department of Energy is investing hundreds of millions of dollars in battery research to help drive industry forward. One example is work underway at Penn State University, where researchers have been awarded a $2.9 million grant to help develop advanced battery technology that could provide twice the energy density in batteries and improve durability.

The research is being led by Donghai Wang, a professor of mechanical and chemical engineering and a member of the Penn State Battery and Energy Storage Technology Center.

He and his team are developing a new type of lithium battery containing sulfur. Through this technology, batteries have twice the energy storage of current lithium-ion batteries at the same weight. Lithium-sulfur batteries are also significantly less expensive to produce.

“It’s a promising technology,” Wang says in a release from the university. “We want to push this to a level closer toward commercialization, but there are some issues that need to be addressed.”

Those issues are roadblocks called “polysulfide dissolution” and “dendrite formation.” In a nutshell, they are the result of chemical reactions that take place between sulfur and lithium, which can cause instability when batteries are being recharged.

Wang’s goal is to fundamentally change the chemistry of the lithium-sulfur battery cell to avoid these problems, and that is what the government’s $2.9 million will help him do. He is collaborating with researchers at Argonne National Laboratory near Chicago and at the University of Illinois at Chicago to develop solutions to current technological barriers.

“Intrinsically, lithium-sulfur batteries promise a much higher energy density,” Wang said. “If we can address these issues of short life cycles through addressing polysulfide dissolution and dendrite formation, we can make them become accepted by consumers as a reliable power source of transportation.”

Buckle up, America. Electric pickups are just around the corner, as well as family-size SUVs, based on the continued advancement of lithium battery technology.