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Electric Vehicle Charging Juiced By Millions Of Federal Dollars, Silicon Edition

The US Department of Energy is determined to kill off gasmobiles with more $$ to speed up electric vehicle charging, by building better batteries.

So there you are with your very fine electric vehicle at your local electric vehicle charging station, waiting your turn while 100 other EV drivers are lined up ahead of you waiting their turn. That’s the nightmare scenario for whenever millions of electric vehicles finally start flooding the market. But it doesn’t have to be that way! Building out the charging station network is one part of the solution. The other is developing EV batteries that perform better and charge up faster, and it looks like the US Department of Energy has identified the secret sauce for EV fast charging.

electric vehicle charging EV batteries

The US Department of Energy is determined to kill off gasmobiles with more $$ to speed up electric vehicle charging, by building better batteries.

A Secret Sauce For Faster Electric Vehicle Charging

The basic challenge of speeding up electric vehicle charging times is to achieve a balance between cost and performance. EV batteries are the primary driver behind the high up-front cost of buying an EV. Make those batteries even more expensive, and nobody will want to buy an EV.

Oddly enough, while President* Trump often touts the wonders of the US oil and gas industry (coal not so much these days), all throughout his administration the Energy Department has continued an aggressive program of support electric vehicle R&D, with a sharp focus on battery cost and performance.

A case in point is yesterday’s announcement of $139 million in funding for 55 different projects aimed at improving vehicle efficiencies in all sorts of areas.

Gasmobiles share some of the love, but an outsized portion of the dollars — about $19 million — is  going to seven projects that involve EV batteries with silicon anodes.

Silicon! Who knew?

Why Silicon For Faster EV Charging

If you know your silicon, you know it could increase EV battery electrode capacity well over the range of graphite, which is the current material of choice. So that’s why the Energy Department is all over silicon like white on rice.

However, there being no such thing as a free lunch, getting silicon right is a tough row to hoe. Silicon is more finicky than graphite and it degrades more quickly.

Back in 2017 the Energy Department took a deep dive into the silicon pool and came up with a cautionary note about silicon in EV batteries.

“Most cells employing a significant amount of silicon provide (at most) 500 deep discharge cycles and less than two years of calendar life,”the agency observed, adding that “The characteristics of low temperature performance and extreme fast charge are lacking in all chemistries.”

Well, that was then. In the same report, the Energy Department identified pathways for solving the problem, and the research has been humming along since then.

“We’re interested in silicon because it can increase the capacity of the electrode by a factor of 10 compared to graphite,” explained Professor Koffi Pierre Yao of the University of Delaware last year. Professor Yao has been making a close study of silicon-graphite electrodes under the theory that a blend of silicon and graphite could achieve faster charging without loss of performance.

That interest in silicon could explain why the University of Delaware nailed down a $1 million share of the Energy Department pot, for something called “Devising mechanically compliant and chemically stable synthetic solid-electrolyte interphases on silicon using for long cycling Si anodes.”

Another $1 million is going to the The Research Foundation for The SUNY Stony Brook University in New York for “Fully Fluorinated Local High Concentration Electrolytes Enabling High Energy Density Silicon Anode.”

The University of Maryland is also weighing in, with $1 million for “Rational Electrolyte Design for Li-ion Batteries with Micro-Sized Silicon Anodes.”

Replacing Gasmobiles With Cleanmobiles

That’s small potatoes compared to a group of four private companies that won awards.

California-based Enovix won $3.2 million for “Structurally and Electrochemically Stabilized Silicon-rich Anodes for Electric Vehicle (EV) Applications.” The company, which has 70 patents in hand and 40 more on the way involving a 100% silicon anode, claims an increase in energy density ranging from 40% to more than 100%, depending on cell size.

Group 14 Technologies Inc. of Washington State is getting almost $4 million for “Rationally Designed Lithium Ion Batteries Towards Displacing Internal Combustion Engines.” Group 14 is going the silicon-graphite route to achieve a 30% improvement in lithium-ion battery costs without impacting performance.

Sila Nanotechnologies of California, snared $4 million for “Ultra-Low Volume Change Silicon-Dominant Nanocomposite Anodes for Long Calendar Life and Cycle Life.” The company has focused on lowering costs eliminating the need to invest in new manufacturing equipment.

“Our silicon-dominant anode products drop into existing battery manufacturing processes, replace graphite entirely, and deliver significantly higher energy density at the cell-level with lower swelling,” Sila explains.

Colorado-based Solid Power rounds out the group with almost $4 million for “Solid State Lithium Ion Batteries using Silicon Composite Anodes.”

Wait, What’s All This About Solid State EV Batteries For Faster Electric Vehicle Charging?

If solid state EV batteries ring a bell, we were just talking about how everybody is suddenly talking about solid state EV batteries. Solid state technology is a focus of Energy Department funding for futuristic energy storage projects, and Solid Power appears to be front and center in the trend.

In 2017 the company partnered with BMW Group on solid state battery development, and just last year it inked a deal with Ford Motor Company to manufacture solid state EV batteries deploying low cost roll-to-roll technology.

Other backers in the manufacturing venture include Volta Energy Technologies, Hyundai CRADLE, Samsung Venture Investment Corp., Sanoh Industrial Co., Solvay Ventures, and A123 Systems.

On its part, Ford is certainly excited about the prospects for transitioning out of gasmobiles and into electric vehicles.

“Our involvement with Solid Power enables us to further collaborate in an important emerging technology that could truly transform the design and integration of smart electric vehicles into tomorrow’s smart world,”enthused Ken Washington, Ford’s chief technology officer, when announcing the Solid Power deal last year.

Over and above the prospects for speeding up electric vehicle charging, Solid Power and Ford are eyeballing a range of improvements over conventional Li-ion technology, including:

Fifty percent higher energy vs. current lithium-ion, which can increase at the module- and pack-level due to design simplicity

Substantially improved safety due to the elimination of the flammable liquid electrolyte as used in lithium-ion

Low-cost battery-pack designs through:Minimization of safety features

Simplified thermal management

High manufacturability due to significant compatibility with automated, industry-standard, roll-to-roll production


Energy Dept. Throws Cold Water On Fossil Energy Renaissance

Economic recovery after COVID-19 is getting greener by the minute, and it seems that the Energy Department is on board with that.

The overall impact of the new $139 million funding cycle  will be to squeeze fossil fuels out of the mobility marketplace. Aside from projects that improve electric vehicle charging times and lower the cost of EV ownership, the funding pot takes aim at oil and fossil gas fuel efficiency from several different angles, including new lightweight materials and smart technologies that ease traffic flow.

Improvements in electric vehicle charging are also supported by the agency’s new “Energy Storage Grand Challenge,” so there’s that.

Then there’s that thing about faster, green hydrogen-powered electric vehicle charging but that’s a whole new kettle of fish.

Follow me on Twitter.

*Developing story.

Image: Energy storage for electric vehicles (Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory circa 2007).

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Written By

Tina specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Google+.


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