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Cars carbon based catalyst for low cost EV batteries

Published on June 6th, 2013 | by Tina Casey

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Low Cost EV Batteries Get A Hand From Carbon Nanotubes



Researchers at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico have discovered a pathway for developing low cost electric vehicle batteries, which could lead to a new generation of affordable EVs. The team has come up with a new nanostructured carbon-based catalyst that looks like something you’d mop up off the kitchen floor, but the important point is that it does not require platinum or other precious metals. When the new catalyst is paired with lithium-air technology, the result could be ten times the storage capacity of conventional lithium-ion batteries at a fraction of the price. So go ahead, fellow taxpayers, give yourselves a nice pat on the back: we built this!

carbon based catalyst for low cost EV batteries

Carbon-based catalyst courtesy of LANL.

A Low Cost Carbon-Based EV Battery

The new catalyst is based on carbon nanotubes altered or “doped” with nitrogen, which the team has labelled N-Fe-CNT/CNP (CNT for carbon nanotube and CNP for carbon nanoparticle).

Carbon is a relatively cheap material, but the use of a carbon-based material only tackles part of the problem. Processing carbon nanotubes with nitrogen into a usable form typically involves significant expense as well as the use of toxic and hazardous substances.

As described in a recently published article in Nature, the Los Alamos team developed a workaround for that problem, which enabled them to synthesize their catalyst in a simple, one-step process using iron acetate [Fe(CH3-COO)2] and cyanamide (NCNH2).

Although there is a long way to go before the catalyst is ready for commercial development, the results so far are promising based on the level of oxygen reduction reaction (ORR) activity, which is a critical measurement of energy storage efficiency. According to the research team, the ORR activity of their N-doped carbon nanotube catalyst is the highest of any similar carbon-based catalysts currently under development, and under certain conditions it can exceed that of platinum-based catalysts.

EV Batteries and EV Affordability

Though the cost of EV batteries has been dropping, the high cost of EV batteries is still the key obstacle standing between you and all-electric personal mobility, at least in terms of affordability. EV batteries currently cost $10,000 and up. Compared to the cost of a gas tank, which is negligible, that has a huge effect on the final price of a car.

A good chunk of that expense involves the catalysts used in lithium-ion EV batteries, which typically rely on precious metals including platinum.


While research continues apace at Los Alamos, last year the Obama Administration launched a coordinated research effort along a number of other pathways with the aim of getting advanced energy storage technology, including low cost EV batteries, into commercial development. That initiative is taking place under the umbrella of JCESR, the Joint Center for Energy Storage Research based at Argonne National Laboratory in Illinois.

Also contributing to the ramping up of the domestic EV battery market is a web of new battery manufacturing facilities established in the Rust Belt with help from the Recovery Act of 2009.

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About the Author

Tina Casey specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Tina’s articles are reposted frequently on Reuters, Scientific American, and many other sites. You can also follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Google+.



  • Arup_2

    …. wait.. You are telling me that the solution to clean, environmental friendly habits is still going to be … er…. “carbon” based!!

  • http://www.facebook.com/chris.cha.965 Chris Cha

    I wonder if this development could replace platinum as the catalyst in hydrogen fuel cells? Now THAT would be a development.

    • Bob_Wallace

      There are lower cost replacement for fuel cells already.

      But fuel cells burning hydrogen can’t compete with EVs. They might work for very deep grid backup assuming large scale hydrogen storage is affordable.

  • Matt

    Sadly most people could not tell you how much they spend on gas for they car a month, might not even be about to tell you how many miles they drive.

    • Bob_Wallace

      They are very aware of stopping at the gas pump and seeing $30, $40, $50 or more totals. (Mine was $42 yesterday.)

      And as more and more EVs and PHEVs come on line they will encounter more and more people talking about how they no longer see those $30, $40,…..

  • David

    IsraZion Ltd produces the cheapest carbon and graphite materials that are used for Li-ion batteries, Lead Acid battery and supercapacitor and fuel cell applications. The carbon materials are produced from waste

  • CSN

    Adding maintenance and fuel costs isn’t what is missing from that comparison, the comparison should be powertrain to powertrain. An electric motor is vastly simpler and so cheaper than an ICE engine. Some of that complexity is pushed to the battery pack, and so comparing full systems is the only sensible metric. Regardless, the point is correct.

  • http://soltesza.wordpress.com/ sola

    You can’t just compare a gas tank and an EV battery when comparing prices.

    EVs have much lower maintenance costs and much lower fuel costs.

    If the EV battery cost as much as a gas tank, it would be a no-brainer to choose the EV for most scenarios.

    • dynamo.joe

      That’s kind of the point isn’t it? Make it a no brainer, cuz most people aren’t going to do an in depth analysis of the cost of ownership. They will just say “my payment is $200 for this ICEV and $400 for this EV, I’ll get the ICEV”.

      All that matters is what the customer does, not what you think the customer SHOULD do.

      Additionally, there are people who don’t have the financial resources to make the ‘right’ decision, even if they know the right decision.

      • J_JamesM

        Yes indeed. Some people simply cannot scratch together enough money to pay for the higher initial cost, particularly when they need a new vehicle NOW. The fact that the long-term costs are lower is sadly irrelevant.

        Fortunately, as it stands, the batteries clearly have a vast area of improvement. And they don’t even have to improve by an order of magnitude to outcompete gas cars. Right now, with battery technology a tenth as good as it theoretically could be using these technologies, a Chevy Spark EV can get a decent charge in 20 minutes, a Tesla Model S can travel 300 miles, and the cost has come down significantly. Only a small improvement- or even merely a further incremental reduction in price- will put them over the edge.

      • Bob_Wallace

        We’re getting close to the point at which “my payment is $200

        for this ICEV and $250 for this EV and if I get the ICEV I’ll be paying another $150 for gas”.

        The starting MSRP for a Toyota Camry is $22,235.
        The starting MSRP for a Nissan LEAF is $21,300 (including the federal subsidy).

        And even without the federal subsidy the monthly payment difference is tightening. At 4% for 6 years the Camry would be $348 and the LEAF $451. If you drive about 9,500 miles per year with $4/gallon gas the Camry and LEAF, without subsidy, would cost you about the same from day 1.

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