Nano-batteries fuel hope for electric car of the future

Batteries are smaller, lighter, and more powerful than ever – and the best is yet to come

Illustrative: A "Better Place" electric car outside the company's sales center in Tel Aviv (photo credit: AP/Ariel Schalit)
Illustrative: A "Better Place" electric car outside the company's sales center in Tel Aviv (photo credit: AP/Ariel Schalit)

Better Place may be dead and buried, but don’t eulogize electric cars just yet.

If Professor Doron Aurbach of Bar Ilan University has his way, Better Place, or another company like it, will eventually produce electric cars, but this time with lighter and longer-lasting batteries. “We are working with a wide range of materials using nano-technology to develop batteries for a wide range of purposes, including, eventually, automobiles,” Aurbach told the Times of Israel.

It turns out that Israel – and Bar Ilan University specifically – is a world leader in battery research and development. Aurbach, who has been working on batteries for the better part of three decades, is a pioneer in the development of the lithium-ion batteries used to power personal devices. “People don’t think about it, but the development of these batteries is almost a miracle,” he said. “The fact that you can pack so much power into a small, light package and use it to power a device that lets you talk, surf the Internet, use location services, messaging, and much more, is amazing, given the inherent instability of batteries. In essence, batteries are like little bombs, and it’s only been through much effort by researchers that they have been made safe to use.”

But like all of us, Aurbach wants more out of batteries – more power, longer periods between recharges, and lighter weights. That is the work Aurbach and his dozens of students are doing at the Nano Cleantech Center at the Bar-Ilan Institute of Nanotechnology and Advanced Materials (BINA), where he directs numerous research projects on battery development and improvement.

It’s not just a BIU project, said Aurbach. “We are partners with some of the largest companies in the world, including GM and BASF, the German chemical giant, as well as with Israeli companies Vulcan, Elbit, Tadiran, and others.” Not only that – but Bar Ilan itself works with several battery start-ups, including ETV Energy and Pellion Technologies.

Aurbach and his lab are working on numerous battery technologies, with the most promising one based on magnesium ion, which supplies more power than lithium-ion batteries (a positive charge of two, rather than one for lithium-ions) and is cheaper to produce (magnesium is much more abundant than lithium). Using nano-materials to tweak individual cells – after all, a battery is made of many small cells – Aurbach believes that new batteries could be significantly lighter, and last 50%-100% longer than current batteries.

Professor Doron Aurbach (Photo credit: Courtesy)
Professor Doron Aurbach (Photo credit: Courtesy)

“And we’re not talking about decades from now,” said Aurbach. “The first batteries from ETV Energy should be ready for the market at the end of the year.” Several projects with BASF are also nearing completion, Aurbach added, and “within a year or so we will see some of these innovations in cellphones, with as much as a 50% improvement in performance.”

Those first batteries will go to power UAVs, allowing them more time in the sky, with less weight to hold them down. But aerial projects are just the beginning, and Aurbach realizes that it’s car batteries that are the “golden ticket” in the battery business.

“It takes a lot of work to build a small battery, ensuring that they don’t leak or explode, so understandably building a big battery takes more time,” Aurbach said. “But all the car manufacturers realize that electric cars are here to stay, even if they haven’t been big sellers yet. I believe that will change as soon as batteries with double the range and half the weight — as well as a lower price — become available, and if our research is successful, they will be available sooner rather than later.”

While Aurbach admits that the public’s taste for battery-powered cars has soured somewhat (not only in Israel) because of the Better Place debacle, Aurbach believes that electric cars will yet have their day. “Better Place was a good idea, ruined by the typical Israeli ‘tycoonist’ approach.”

“The bosses had no patience, they wanted immediate profits, and when they didn’t get them they killed the business. Meanwhile, the management made all sorts of promises it couldn’t keep, and the government fell short in its support as well. Everyone lost, unfortunately.”

But the dream of an electric car isn’t dead – certainly not for GM, Nissan, Toyota, and other car companies that are working on improving electric cars, which, said Aurbach, essentially means improving battery technology. “Israel can yet be a center of electric car development. Better Place, or a company like it, should be revived, but it should be done properly this time. What we have done in battery technology over the last 30 years, in cars, phones, and other areas, is just amazing,” Aurbach said. “And the greatest progress is yet to come.”

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