Jeff Dahn is a world renowned scientist and researcher at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia (home to the most beautiful public gardens in the world). He has been under contract to Tesla for many years to pursue battery research that will lead to longer lasting, faster charging, less expensive batteries for electric vehicles and energy storage.
Where most battery manufacturers are focused on building battery factories that use current technology, Dahn and his dedicated group of researchers are focused more on the batteries the world will need 5, 10, or 15 years from now. Keep in mind that this battery stuff is still in its infancy.
Just as the infernal combustion engine evolved from its crude beginnings at the end of the 19th century into a marvel of engineering that can go for hundreds of thousands of miles with little maintenance, today’s batteries will be for tomorrow what vacuum tubes are today — historical curiosities from a bygone age.
In 2019, Jeff Dahn was among the first people to suggest that an EV battery might last for one million miles before it needed replacement. Today, he and his researchers have published a paper in the Journal of the Electrochemical Society that suggests a battery that can last for 100 years is possible. The paper has the rather engaging title of Li[Ni0.5Mn0.3Co0.2]O2 as a Superior Alternative to LiFePO4 for Long-Lived Low Voltage Li-Ion Cells. It’s a page-turner, to be sure, and anyone who chooses to delve more deeply into it is welcome to do so.
Regular readers know I am math challenged and science challenged, but I did spend some time reading the paper and here’s what I learned. The researchers are focused on a variation of the conventional lithium nickel manganese cobalt (NMC532) battery. What distinguishes it from similar batteries is that it is optimized to operate on 3.8 volts while other NMC batteries use 4.2 volts or more. The lower voltage greatly extends the life of the battery cells, which is what allows Dahn and his team to suggest that might have a useful life of 100 years.
So when will Tesla put them into a production car? Probably never. The researchers say that their new formulation costs more than LFP batteries and may not have the power characteristics needed for electric vehicles. But they may be ideally suited for long term energy storage. If so, the initial higher cost will be more than offset by their greatly extended service life. The drawbacks, of course, are that the new batteries continue to use raw materials like nickel and cobalt that are becoming much more costly, not to mention the social downside associated with cobalt mining.
In the conclusion to this latest scientific paper, the researchers say,
“NMC532 cells that are balanced for low voltage operation were cycled to 3.65 V and 3.80 V for the basis of comparison with LFP cells at equivalent cell potentials and without a considerable excess of graphite, like in a conventional NMC-containing cell. At all cycling temperatures considered, low voltage NMC532 cells provided superior capacity retention compared to both LFP cells and NMC532 cells balanced for and operated up to 4.20 V.
“Therefore, similar cell designs with similar materials should take consideration for applications that demand the highest lifetimes. Among many benefits, these cells were shown to be compatible with LiFSI-containing electrolytes, avoiding high voltage corrosion problems and resulting in high temperature lifetimes vastly superior to cells with conventional LiPF6 electrolyte.
“Overall, low voltage NMC532 cells exceed LFP cells in lifetime and volumetric energy density. This should warrant use consideration where the energy density of LFP cells is insufficient and the device lifetime is more important than initial costs. This does not immediately dismiss LFP cells as a viable storage technology, as it is believed that initial cost and safety would remain superior.”
Don’t look for these batteries in the automotive section at Walmart any time soon. In fact, as with all basic research, whether they ever make it out of the lab and into production is an open question. The good news is that research of this type is ongoing in labs all around the world, which means better batteries are coming. Someday, the batteries in your 2019 Tesla Model 3 may be displayed at the Smithsonian and young people will be amazed their parents actually drove cars that used such antiquated devices. It’s a brave new world for electric vehicles and battery storage, and the best is yet to come.
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