US Tax dollars already have lithium problem licked

It’s amazing how in just a few short months, the whole of the US Auto industry and a lot more besides have got behind the Plug-in hybrid. Even if sales of conventional hybrids have fallen a little, according to the Wall Street Journal with the cuts backs on subsidies and a fall in the price of gasoline the general consensus, from GM through to Ford is that Hybrids are a “good thing.” It’s encouraging but worrying at the same time, because even the bosses like Lutz and Waggoner know that as of today, they don’t have the batteries to hand to make these Plug in hybrids possible.Neither do the Japanese— for years regarded as the masters of advanced battery technology.

Fortunately, there is at least one place in the USA where the chemistry to make these batteries possible may exist— they ar laboratories funded by the US taxpayer. Tucked away in countryside about 20 miles from Chicago is the Argonne National Laboratory and I was fortunate enough to be allowed inside… since 9/11, security is stiff.

Even though the USA no longer has major players in the advanced lithium battery field, the powers that be were smart enough to realize that this stuff was strategic and would one day be “needed”. That time is now. This couldn’t happen in the UK where I come from because Thatcher and her minions wiped out so much strategic science during the 1980s and stuff that didn’t pay for itself there and then was either privatized and closed down.

So what’s at Argonne? You’d have to have been blind not to notice the “problems” faced by the lap top industry and small lithium ion batteries. The problem comes when they get hot and the metal oxide cathodes decompose liberating oxygen. Combine this with flammable electrolyes and the results is a singed brief case or worse. Nobody in the auto industry wants to see this happen or the Plug in hybrid will be buried even faster than the EV1.

Fortunately there are new cathode materials under development , which will not only do better in minimising potential conflagrations which use finer (nano structured) materials but they cost less also (ie the elements used are just more abundant).

The chemists in Argonne’s battery group are also borrowing modeling techniques that the physicists based there use, to create the structure of future battery materials and see how they’ll behave…. And that before one gram of the stuff is even synthesized.

The USA might not be able to muster much in terms of manufacturing capability in advanced lithium technologies but the creativity is there in spades— it’s really up to the US automakers to take up the work that their taxes have paid for and turn remarkable workinto profits, jobs and reduced emissions.

Gerry Woolf has worked as a science and technology writer for (wait for it) – 25 years and is Editor and publisher of BEST (Batteries and Energy Storage Technology) Magazine. BEST is an international journal launched in 2003 and the leading publication covering battery and electrochemical power. It is available on line and in hard copy form on subscription only. How we get the batteries right and whose doing what to get them right is at the heart of BEST magazine, published quarterly from the UK. To find out more go to http://www.bestmag.co.uk/.You can read more about this in the Winter issue of BEST magazine, which will be published January 15th. 2007. Go to http://www.bestmag.co.uk/ for more details.

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