Nobody knows how long it takes to form oil. Every year, we pump more to propel our
driven world. Maybe in a thousand years it will replenish, maybe less; but, however long
it takes, we don’t have that kind of time.
Oil is difficult to replace, and currently, all bets are on battery- or hydrogen-powered cars that draw their electricity from clean, renewable sources. Despite numerous ecological benefits, the payout has been mixed. The technology isn’t mature, and vehicle-sized batteries and fuel cells are notoriously expensive.
On Dec. 3, researchers, industry executives and a politician gathered in the Center for Student Innovation (CSI, 87) to discuss the challenges ahead. The three-hour mini-conference, FUEL: Forum for University and Energy Leaders, provided an overview of the field, highlighted RIT research and explored commercial applications.
“I talk to a number of my partners in government about this technology, and they talk about it as though it’s science fiction,” Joe Morelle, a New York state assemblyman, said. “It’s no longer science fiction. This is science fact.”
According to Morelle, the technology is traveling through an entrepreneurial “valley of death.” He thinks government can play a role in removing some of the obstacles preventing adoption: establishing an infrastructure for hydrogen and stimulating very low consumer demand for expensive cars.
Mark Mathias, director of the General Motors Electrochemical Energy Research Lab, illustrated the pricing problem with the Chevy Volt, GM’s flagship low emissions car. For the first 15 to 30 miles, it runs on batteries and then switches into a hybrid mode with a gas engine. Today, it costs $41,000. That’s far higher than what most consumers expect. “Some of [the cost] will come out with economies of scale, but not as much as we’d need to make it commercial,” he said.
Half of the price differential comes directly from the batteries. GM thinks they need to cost $3,000 to make a car like the Volt a commercial success. Instead, they cost three to four times that amount.
The batteries, by turn, are expensive to manufacture; and that’s where RIT researchers come in. In several technical talks, Golisano Institute for Sustainability (GIS) researchers described their progress experimenting with battery and fuel cell materials, systems and production.
Nenad Nenadic, a GIS faculty researcher, talked about his ongoing work on battery replacement. “Currently, the replacement strategy for the batteries is virtually non-existent,” he said. “If you want to replace a battery, the manufacturer will tell you: ‘Replace them all at once. Do not [mismatch] batteries.’”
A mismatch in the performance of one battery would have an impact on the entire system. That extends even to one failed cell in a battery pack containing many other cells. If one fails, the best practice is to replace them all. Those practices were developed for more primitive batteries than those used now, says Nenadic. Fresher information exists, he says, but it is often the property of battery manufacturers.
It gets worse. In vehicles and certain other uses, the cells are sometimes replaced as soon as they reach 80 percent of their original capacity. “There is a lot of life left in those batteries,” Nenadic said. His research looks into how battery cells age within a pack with the
goal of enabling re-use of cells in the future. Other researchers discussed the use of carbon
nanotubes and the optimization of fuel cell material printing.
Don Boyd, RIT vice president for Research, closed the forum. “We’re still at, I would say, version one. There is so much more to do here,” he said. “This could be the Silicon Valley of the fuel cell, battery, solid oxide fuel cell, you name it.”