In an industrial area south of the historic university town of Cambridge, researchers from a company called Echion Technologies are looking for the perfect formula for quickly recharging vehicle batteries.
Since many governments have net zero carbon emissions as their ultimate goal, such an invention would be very timely.
Electric cars already have long-distance capabilities – a range of 322 kilometers is not unusual – but many need hours of plugging in to reach a full charge.
Being able to do this in less than an hour would make trips across the country more feasible, making an electric vehicle a more attractive prospect for consumers.
Faster charging can also improve the productivity of electric buses or delivery vans by allowing more time on the road and less time plugged into the power supply.
Batteries that can be charged quickly can also facilitate the use of electric trains without installing expensive electrification infrastructure, such as overhead line equipment.
Work at Echion Technologies’ headquarters in south-east England centers on a chemical that many people have never heard of: niobium.
Despite its low profile, niobium has been on the radar as a potential material for lithium-ion battery anodes — the material in a lithium-ion battery that receives lithium ions — since the 1980s.
Many companies around the world are studying its use, so this metal, sometimes present in stainless steel, could play an important role in the transition to electric transport.
“The work that was done before was a starting point. It has not been optimized as a commercial material,” says Benjamin Ting, Commercial Director of Echion Technologies.
“It was Echion’s goal to find the optimal material to use as a battery anode suitable for use in mass markets.”
Like much research and development, these efforts are simply laborious: Over the past few years, Echion Technologies has screened nearly 1,000 candidate materials for niobium-based anodes and selected “a very narrow proportion.”
The research and development teams, which represent around two-thirds of the company’s more than 30 employees, produce powders containing mixtures of chemical substances in varying proportions, which are synthesized in an oven.
The powder is then mixed with inks and tested to determine how well they cover the sheet to become electrodes.
The resulting electrodes are tested in dozens of small, coin-shaped batteries, each outwardly similar to the batteries found, for example, in television remotes or bank card readers.
“Our part-level results have prompted a number of leading cell manufacturers to begin development of commercial formats using our material,” Ting said.
Combination of key factors
Optimizing battery performance involves juggling several variables. Chief among them are charge rate, energy density, power density, operating temperature, the number of charge and discharge cycles a battery can last, and its safety and performance. sustainability.
Optimizing charge rate and energy density is of particular importance, as faster charging batteries often have lower energy density.
“Often if you try to optimize for one, you’re going to see a trade-off in the others,” said Mr Ting, a chartered engineer from Australia. “We say we offer the best balance.”
Creating something that is viable as a mass-produced product is a “big step” from finding a material that works well in the lab. But the company is quietly convinced that it has developed an anode material that could find market appeal.
“We’re not saying we’re a game-changer, but we like to think we’re going to make a difference for a number of big industries,” Ting says. “We are pragmatic, which gives confidence to those who want to commit to a new battery material, because it is a long-term investment and commitment.”
The company says its XNO material offers, among other things, long life, safe operations and the ability to work in a range of temperatures.
It is said to retain 70% of its power output even in temperatures of -30°C and is also resistant to high temperatures, which can be particularly useful in areas like the Middle East.
Major manufacturers are now producing cells using Echion Technologies equipment and production is being scaled up to “thousand ton scale”.
Professor Poul Norby, from the Department of Energy Conversion and Storage at the Technical University of Denmark, says there has already been “a lot of progress” with fast charging technology, which he describes as important “to really move vehicles towards electric”.
“If you look back a few years, cars loaded at maybe 50 or 100 kilowatts [kW]. Now it has become more common to charge at 150 kW,” he says.
Ultimately, there may be many types of niobium-containing anode materials that have commercial impact. Battery manufacturers are certainly not lacking in interest.
Indeed, a few miles north of Cambridge is another company, Nyobolt, which is also working on fast-charging technology using niobium.
Further on, electronics giant Toshiba and two partners announced last year that they were working on developing lithium-ion batteries using niobium-titanium oxide as the anode material, while companies in China, Israel and, in particular, the United States, also focus on niobium. .
Many other companies are developing fast-charging batteries that rely on different chemical elements.
While Echion Technologies’ niobium-based anode material could end up in car batteries, the company says its use in batteries for delivery vans, buses, trains or even mining vehicles is more likely.
“An electric passenger vehicle might not be the best fit, but a delivery van, a UPS van that can have multiple drivers and short breaks, those vehicles are in sight,” Ting says.
“Fast charging is going to be important for buses, because it’s not ideal that you have buses waiting for six hours a day. You want to be able to use them.
Prof Norby says improving charging speeds for buses and other large vehicles may allow the use of smaller batteries which could be quickly charged at the end of a bus route, potentially saving fuel. money and weight.
This may involve the installation of additional charging stations beyond those required when buses are charged at night at central depots, so the ideal solution depends on the balance between “advantages and disadvantages”.
According to Ting, reducing battery size reduces the amount of battery material needed, which reduces the environmental impact of production, highlighting the many potential benefits of fast-charging technology.
“We hope there will be segments that put fast charging as a selling point,” he says.
Updated: November 14, 2022, 02:33