Plus a Charge, Plus C'est La Mme Chose Pt. 2: Nanotech Improves on Tom Edison's Nickel-Iron Battery
In 1896, when he was still the chief operating engineer of Detroit’s Edison Illuminating Company, and not yet famous as a car maker, Henry Ford was invited to accompany his boss to a banquet in New York, honoring their big boss, Thomas Edison.
At the dinner, the topic turned to the then newly invented automobiles and the money that could be made selling electricity to charge the batteries of electric cars. Ford’s boss mentioned Henry’s experiments with gasoline and his Quadricycle. Ford’s description got Edison’s attention, and the great inventor asked Ford to sit next to him (Edison was hearing impaired from his youth) while they discussed the relative merits of gasoline, electricity and steam. Edison pounded on the table in encouragement of Ford’s efforts.
Young man, that’s the thing; you have it. Keep at it. Electric cars must keep near to power stations. The storage battery is too heavy. Steam cars won’t do, either, for they require a boiler and fire. Your car is self-contained—carries its own power plant—no fire, no boiler, no smoke and no steam. You have the thing. Keep at it.
Five years later, though Edison had apparently changed his mind. Edison, or more likely researchers working for him, developed a new battery chemistry, that used a nickel oxide-hydroxide cathode and an iron anode, with an electrolyte of potassium hydroxide. They were an improvement over lead-acid batteries, particularly in terms of being able to handle multiple charging/discharging cycles and durability. Modern tests have verified Thomas Edison’s claim that his batteries would last 100 years. In 1903 Edison set up the Edison Storage Battery Company to manufacture and sell them. Electric car companies like Baker and Detroit Electric offered Edison batteries as an upgrade option. In 1896, gasoline was, according to Edison, “the thing”. Now that he had batteries to sell to EV makers…
Electricity is the thing. There are no whirring and grinding gears with their numerous levers to confuse. There is not that almost terrifying uncertain throb and whirr of the powerful combustion engine. There is no water circulating system to get out of order – no dangerous and evil-smelling gasoline and no noise.
Partly due to his friendship with Edison, Henry Ford himself, after the success of the Model T, pursued the dream of an electric car, spending $1.5 million in 1914 dollars, hiring experts and building prototypes.
Within a year, I hope, we shall begin the manufacture of an electric automobile. I don’t like to talk about things which are a year ahead, but I am willing to tell you something of my plans.
The fact is that Mr. Edison and I have been working for some years on an electric automobile which would be cheap and practicable. Cars have been built for experimental purposes, and we are satisfied now that the way is clear to success. The problem so far has been to build a storage battery of light weight which would operate for long distances without recharging. Mr. Edison has been experimenting with such a battery for some time.
Today we would call Ford’s electric car project vaporware. He hired experts to head the project but they were stymied by the Edison batteries’ high internal electrical resistance that made them unsuitable in certain real world conditions. Also, they are slow to charge, slow to discharge, and like most batteries, simply didn’t have the energy density to compete with gasoline. When Ford found out that his technicians had substituted lead-acid batteries in a prototype, he had a conniption and the project died.
While they may not have been ideal for EV’s nickel-iron batteries are indeed practical in some applications. Edison Storage Battery Company existed into the 1970s and nickel-iron batteries are still being used in off-grid installations. Now comes news that researchers in Canada and China, headed by a team at California’s Stanford University, have revived hopes that the Edison battery will yet again power EVs. The researchers say that they have improved the charge/discharge performance of nickel-iron batteries a thousand fold through the use of nanotechnology.
The research was published in the journal Nature Communications. Instead of mixing iron and nickel with conductive carbon at the macro level, the researchers grew nanocrystals of iron oxide onto graphene [single-molecule-thin sheets of carbon arranged in a honeycomb lattice], and nanocrystals of nickel hydroxide onto carbon nanotubes [cyclinders of carbon molecules, also arranged in a honeycomb lattice. Lead researcher Honjie Dai described the effect:
Coupling the nickel and iron particles to the carbon substrate allows electrical charges to move quickly between the electrodes and the outside circuit. The result is an ultrafast version of the nickel-iron battery that’s capable of charging and discharging in seconds.
So far a one-volt prototype has been built and tested, charging in 2 minutes and discharging in 30 seconds, and the team says that the idea is scalable. Unlike lithium-ion batteries, nickel-iron cells use common raw materials, and also unlike lithim-ion cells, the electrolyte is not flammable.
Unfortunately, the modern high tech Edison batteries have one of the same drawbacks that the century old originals had, low energy density. Though improved over previous Ni-Fe batteries, lead author Hainliang Wang says that the nanotech nickel-iron batteriess still wouldn’t have enough energy density to power EVs by themselves. He does see a potential use along the lines of how ultracapacitors have been suggested for use in EVs (or implemented as in Formula One KERS systems). “It could assist lithium-ion batteries by giving them a real power boost for faster acceleration and regenerative braking.”
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How fast the battery can accept a charge is not a real gating issue for BEVs. The real issue is how fast the grid can deliver a charge. The formula Watts = Amps * Volts is the key. A 120V 15A line (regular household lines in the US) can deliver 1.8 KWh of power in one hour. That quantity of energy will allow the average BEV to travel about 9 mi. So, a 120V 15A line can charge at a top speed of 9 mph. A 240V 30A line carries four times as much energy, so it can reach a top speed of 36 mph. Most houses don't have enough capacity to carry more than that and function as houses. A charging station that can deliver 20KWh to a BEV in 15 min. would need its own connection to a sub-station. 80 KW per hour requires something like 720V and 110 amps. That is hot make sure to wear insulated gloves, boots, and safety eye-wear while charging your car. Getting a 400 mi charge in to your whip will be 8 times as stiff. Good luck.
Achieving "scalable" results has been the death of more than one advanced development exercise.