Thanks in part to Illinois innovation, ‘range anxiety’ won’t hamper electric cars for long

Consumer Reports’ well-read auto issue spends a lot of time exploring range anxiety, the worry that consumers have about the battery life of an electric vehicle. Even though there are many cars on the market with batteries that will propel a car farther than most people drive in a day, most Midwesterners still worry about what might happen in rural Wisconsin or Michigan when a Nissan Leaf or a Chevrolet Bolt runs out of juice far from an available charging station.

There you are happily driving the kid to college in Iowa, and suddenly you’re stranded.

That fear is a major impediment to the widespread adoption of electric cars, even though any reasonable person can see that they will one day take over from gas-powered vehicles.

But scientists in Illinois are changing that.

Mohammad Asadi, an assistant professor at the Illinois Institute of Technology, last month co-published a paper in the journal Science with Larry A. Curtiss and other Illinois colleagues about their work on a novel lithium-air battery that has a solid electrolyte made with a mix of polymer and ceramic.

By combining those two materials, the paper argued, the product could leverage both “ceramic’s high ionic conductivity and the high stability and high interfacial connection of the polymer.” The resulting battery, the paper claimed, has the potential for “reaching ultra-high power densities far beyond current lithium-ion technology.”

Asadi thinks the solid-state battery design could store 1 kilowatt-hour per kilogram or higher – which happens to be four times greater than the current lithium-ion battery technology.

Or, to put all of this more simply, this radical development in battery technology could create the most practically powerful battery in the world and utterly transform the abilities of any kind of transportation, from scooters to Lucid Motor’s cool vehicles to Metra trains, that run on electricity.

What we’re talking about here is a super-duper battery, one far less likely to catch fire than today’s car batteries.

Instead of lasting for 300 miles before it needs more juice, your electric car might soon go for 1,000 miles or more on the same charge. That should put a stop to all reasonable incarnations of “range anxiety.” And that would make the argument for buying your next vehicle with an internal combustion engine far weaker.

Adasi’s tests in the lab were conducted in collaboration with University of Illinois Chicago and the University of Chicago-managed Argonne National Laboratory in suburban Lemont. Adasi said it’s now a matter of designing the battery, engineering it for what would appear to be a massive global market , and then working with private sector partners to get the battery on the road, or the rails. It might even make it possible for United Airlines to start flying electric airplanes from O’Hare International Airport.

Science is a peer-reviewed, academic journal, and the apparent breakthrough right here in Illinois did not get much journalistic ink at home. But Ambrose Evans-Pritchard, the respected international economics correspondent of London’s Daily Telegraph saw and wrote about the implications of what is happening here. “What the Argonne-IIF battery and other global breakthroughs show collectively,” he wrote, “is that energy science is moving so fast that what seemed impossible five years ago is already a discernible reality, and that we will be looking at a very different technological landscape before the end of this decade.”

Better yet, this new battery could potentially use sodium in place of lithium, the limited supply of which is often the cause of more anti-electrification fear-mongering. You can find sodium everywhere. Isn’t there a decent deposit just outside of Salt Lake City?

Granted, this all will take some time before the batteries are at car dealerships, and the Illinois crew hardly are the only scientists chasing the prize of the best battery on the planet.

But two important things are worth noting. The first is that those vastly improved batteries are coming as sure as red follows green. Car dealerships will be all-electric affairs and politicians had better start thinking about what happens when all the truck stops disappear, along with the gas stations at highway intersections and the jobs associated with those places. Not to mention the complexities of the tax revenue. Andrew Yang warned about this colossal change to America’s heartland even before his failed presidential campaign. History will prove him right.

And the second? Illinois has some extraordinary scientific researchers, changing the world right on our doorstep. They don’t get anywhere near enough attention.

Chicago Tribune