Engineers at Hydro-Québec’s research institute in this Montreal suburb say they can recharge a lithium-ion battery cell in just one minute. That speed is the current state-of-the-art for solving one of the big problems with electric vehicles — how to cut the time it takes to re-juice a depleted battery. The best fast-chargers now promise to do that job in about 30 minutes. With a 240-volt charger — the most common type — it’s hours.
But before you rush to your nearest EV showroom, you should know the breakthrough involves recharging just a single 18650 cell, the small, tube-shaped battery that’s used in many laptops and other electronic gadgets, and, in a pack of nearly 6,700, powers the Tesla Roadster electric sports car. Still, it’s a major step in the slow-moving effort to produce batteries that can help make EVs appeal to the mass market.
The goal, says Karim Zaghib, who heads the Hydro institute’s battery research team, is a five-minute charge for almost any battery pack; a rate that would get drivers back on the road in about the same time as filling a gas tank.
That level of performance is reasonably close, Zaghib says. But he won’t provide details: The institute and its partner in this research, the U.S. Department of Energy, have applied for patents for the technology and they’ll reveal nothing until that’s complete, likely by the end of the year.
Skeptics who argue it’s physically impossible to push enough electricity into a battery to achieve a five-minute charge — several readers have sent me detailed calculations to “prove” that point — are just trying to pry a few secrets loose, Zaghib says with a laugh.
This development of super-fast charging is notable enough. What’s more remarkable is that it’s just part of the groundbreaking research being conducted at the institute — work that places provincially owned Hydro-Québec among the global leaders in developing battery technology for electric vehicles.
Around the world, many government and corporate labs are pushing to develop the next-generation battery — the one that would make its inventors rich by giving EVs the same performance, convenience and cost as internal combustion cars. “Breakthroughs” are routinely announced, although most come with the caution that sales to consumers are years away.
No other utility in North America is doing anything like the Quebec work — certainly not Ontario Power Generation, where, a spokesperson says, “research and development is no longer part of (its) core mandate.”
Hydro-Québec has been involved in battery research for more than three decades and got into lithium-ion in 1995. It “wanted to accelerate the penetration of EVs and plug-ins as soon as possible,” Zaghib says. “We want to be recognized for helping to accelerate EVs.”
The utility has electricity to spare — 98 per cent of it from massive hydroelectric generating stations — and would benefit from increased demand. Its current capacity could support 1 million EVs, or one-third of all cars on Quebec’s roads, it says.
Part of its pitch is based on the fact that, although dams on the province’s northern rivers have had dramatic impact on the James Bay environment, waterpower is considered a pollution-free, renewable energy source.
“We’re charging batteries with green electricity,” Zaghib says. “This is the main reason.”
In addition, the institute expects its partners to create jobs in Quebec, making battery components based on the new technology. Much of that success is due to Zaghib, 48, an electro-chemist who says he dreams about EV batteries and some nights gets up at 3 a.m., excited by a new idea to improve them.
His cumbersome job title — director of the energy storage and conversion department — belies the passion for his work that he displayed during a recent tour of the research centre, a half-hour drive northeast of downtown Montreal.
During the two hours he could spare between meetings, we raced through research labs spread throughout three buildings, warmly greeting any of the 37 colleagues he encountered along the way and delivering thorough and enthusiastic explanations of the development and testing in each location.
Trained in Grenoble, France, he has been doing battery research since 1986. Over the past quarter-century, he has published more than 130 papers and 85 patents, and edited 11 books. He was developing new materials for lithium-ion batteries at the Osaka National Research Institute in Japan when, in 1995, Hydro-Québec came calling.
EV batteries are made up of cells, each containing two electrodes. One, the cathode (usually a metal compound), is positive. The other, the anode (usually graphite), is negative. Between them is a liquid called the electrolyte, as well as a separator (a bit of plastic material that prevents the electrodes from touching so they don’t short-circuit).
When a typical EV battery is fully charged, each anode is full of lithium ions. As the driver hits the accelerator, ions flow through the electrolyte to the cathode, creating an electric current. When most have made that journey, the battery must be recharged, which pulls the ions back to the anode, ready to move again when power is demanded. For sufficient power, the ions must move quickly and in large numbers. For range, the electrodes must be able to hold a lot of ions. For longevity, the electrodes must be able to withstand the constant contraction and expansion as the ions enter and depart, as well as corrosion from the electrolyte.
Current batteries produce adequate power. But, compared with gasoline, they store very little energy, so most travel, at best, about 160 kilometres between charges. They’re also very expensive.
Hydro’s institute is trying to devise better compounds for all the cell components, as well as new methods of applying them, to improve performance at a much-reduced cost.
However, it doesn’t build batteries or components. Instead, it develops materials and manufacturing techniques that others can use.
That work has led to more than 100 patents, as well as 15 licensing agreements with companies around the world (including giants BASF and IBM) that aim to develop the technologies into commercial products.
Typical of the hoped-for results was an announcement last month from Focus Graphite Inc. , which owns a graphite mine in Quebec. Focus announced it would build plants in the province to concentrate and purify graphite, and then use the material to manufacturer anodes; with both steps employing processes developed by Zaghib’s team. No money or job numbers were included, and the plans hinge on market conditions and financing, but it’s at least part of a coherent plan.
An earlier lithium technology was sold to France’s Bollore Group and became the foundation for that company’s Bluecar, an EV used mainly in a successful car-sharing program in Paris.
Battery research is painstaking, because each component comes with benefits and problems. For example, those that hold more ions tend to release them more slowly. On top of that, even a small change in a compound or process can radically alter how the whole thing performs. So each change leads to a whole new round of tests.
The institute gets $100 million a year from Hydro-Quebec and licencing revenue. Part of that funding goes to battery research, where the immediate focus is on compounds that promise more durability and safety, as well as the ultra-fast charging.
Projects include cutting the cost of an electrolyte that doesn’t burst into flame when the cell is punctured or compressed — but is 25 times more expensive than the current type.
It’s also working on a silicon-based anode that would dramatically increase energy storage, and just beginning research into lithium air, the ultimate, but extremely difficult, technology that promises huge increases in range.
With plans for the institute to grow to 65 people by 2015, Zaghib, a father of four, has plenty to keep him busy. He doesn’t mind.“I love my job,” he says. “I’m not counting my hours.”