MIT Group Developing 'Refillable' EV Battery

By Danny King June 15, 2011

24M research team.jpgHoping to come up with a way to end electric vehicle "range anxiety," a company started by Massachusetts Institution of Technology (MIT) researchers is working on an early-stage technology in which a sludge-like material could be used to quickly replace the electrodes and electrolytes in EV batteries to allow for a full recharge in a matter of minutes. The company, 24M Technologies, was founded last year by MIT professors W. Craig Carter and Yet-Ming Chiang and entrepreneur Throop Wilder. It is developing what it calls a semi-solid flow cell, in which the positive and negative electrode material is contained in a sludge-like electrolyte material. Depleted "flow cell" batteries could  be refilled with the thick black  liquid - Carter referred to it as "Cambridge crude" in a recent MIT News article -  to restore their change, eliminating the need to recharge from the power grid, often a lengthy process.

If it can be commercialized, the technology would eventually address the range issues faced by drivers who fear being stranded because of the amount of time it takes to recharge a battery and the lack of public recharging facilities. With the semi-solid flow cell, an electric vehicle's battery pack could be recharged in a matter of minutes instead of the four to twelve hours it typically takes - depending on the battery size and charger output - the company said.  A driver could theoretically carry a backup container of the "goo" on board or get the liquid at a gas station.

MIT Battery.jpgWhen such technology would be commercially viable is anyone's guess because the process is in its earliest stages, said Philip Gott, managing director at IHS Automotive, who noted that such technology has been discussed for the past decade. He said that broad use of such technology is probably still about a decade away. "The thinking is that that, if you were able to replenish the active charged ingredients in a cell by draining it and refilling it instead of recharging it, you could instantly refresh that energy-storage device, and that’s what they’ve done," said Gott. "People have been pursuing this sort of electric power regeneration for some time, so it's nice to see it coming to light."

The development marks another EV-related advancement for MIT, which topped U.S. News & World Report's list of engineering schools this year. In March, lithium-ion battery pack maker A123 Systems, another MIT offshoot, won an $8 million contract from the U.S. Energy Department (DOE) and a automaker group that includes General Motors, Ford and Chrysler to further develop so-called Nanophosphate systems that will produce lighter, cheaper and more powerful batteries for plug-in hybrid-electric vehicles. A123, co-founded by Chiang in 2001, had previously won two battery-development contracts worth a combined $27.5 million from the United States Advanced Battery Consortium. In February, 24M received a $2.55 million grant from the Energy Department's to develop cheaper batteries with increased energy-storage capacity. In all, 24M has raised more than $16 million between federal grants and venture capital funds, according to MIT News.

Photos courtesy of MIT: Members of the 24M research team include (from left to right) recent graduate Mihai Duduta '10, Prof. W. Craig Carter, graduate student Bryan Ho, and Prof. Yet-Ming Chiang.

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