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New thermal management technology out of Penn State has the potential to accelerate EV adoption by increasing convenience and decreasing costs.

EV Innovation in Leaps and Bounds

Charging an EV
Charging an EV

Last month in the journal Nature, Penn State researchers outlined a new EV battery technology. The new batteries would significantly reduce charging times and improve energy density. Stories like these often slip under the radar, even in automotive circles, but this new technology has the potential to solve several current stumbling blocks in the transition to electric vehicles.

Fast Charging with Fewer Headaches

Chao-Yang Wang - Penn State University on youtube.com
Chao-Yang Wang - Penn State University on youtube.com

The Penn State research team, led by Chao-Yang Wang, says their new battery technology involves a new method for heating and cooling EV battery packs. As Wang notes, EV batteries need to be “hot, but not too hot,” for optimal charging and efficiency. Extremes of hot and cold, easy to encounter throughout the year here in the US, can wreak havoc on an EV’s battery, sapping capacity and therefore range.

Current temperature management for EV batteries involves bulky and energy-intensive heating and cooling systems. Wang and his research team have developed a new “internal thermal management” system directly incorporating nickel-foil into the battery that is both more efficient and less bulky than external systems. The new nickel-foil technology addresses one of biggest hurdles to broader EV adoption: charging times.

EV Charging Station
EV Charging Station

American motorists are used to zipping in and out of their local filling station in under ten minutes. Depending on the kind of charger, current lithium-ion battery electric vehicles (BEVs) can take anywhere from 20-plus minutes to half a day to charge (that spread ranging from DC fast charging to your normal 120-volt wall socket). Those charging times can be minorly inconvenient or untenable depending on the use case. To accelerate EV adoption, the convenience of gas-powered cars will need to be replicated in EVs.

Per the study’s abstract, the new nickel-foil enabled batteries will allow fast charging as rapid as 75% of a full charge in just 12 minutes and a total battery life of roughly half a million miles. And while consumers do indeed want the convenience of faster charging times for EVs, they also want range and price equivalent to gas-powered cars. Luckily, the new technology addresses these issues as well.

Smaller Batteries, Same Power

Current Jeep Wrangler 4xe battery pack - media.stellantisnorthamerica.com
Current Jeep Wrangler 4xe battery pack - media.stellantisnorthamerica.com

Besides the streamlining temperature modulation, with the benefits of jettisoning cumbersome battery heating and cooling systems, the new nickel-foil batteries allow for greater energy density, by up to two-thirds. As Wang put it, “(These batteries) will open a new possibility to downsize electric vehicle batteries from 150 to 50 kWh without causing drivers to feel range anxiety.”

Today’s EV battery technology poses a conundrum for both consumers and carmakers. Prospective EV buyers want 300 or so miles of range, about that of the gas-powered cars they’re used to. That means EVs need big battery packs, but adding more batteries adds weight to the vehicle and decreases overall efficiency. Larger batteries also cost more, which gets passed on to EV shoppers, further raising the bar for adoption. And finally, there are the raw materials. Cobalt, lithium, and other battery components carry their own environmental and socio-political costs. All this is to say, a smaller EV battery that can carry equivalent or greater amounts of energy holds serious promise.

Rethinking the Pace of EV Adoption

EC Power battery - psu.edu
EC Power battery - psu.edu

The prospect of faster charging times and smaller, cheaper batteries that use fewer raw materials allows us to rethink the trajectory of EV adoption. As we have seen in the last 18 months, the proverbial worm has turned on the public sentiment surrounding EVs. Carmaker after carmaker cannot keep up with the accelerating demand for electrified vehicles (hybrids and full EVs). With the public already excited about today’s EVs, it would seem major strides to improve EV technology, like those out of Penn State, can only hasten its wider adoption.

A Pennsylvania start-up, EC Power has partnered with Penn State to produce and market the new battery tech. If the results of Wang’s research prove scalable, it could kick the nascent EV revolution into high gear.

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Chris Kaiser

With two decades of writing experience and five years of creating advertising materials for car dealerships across the U.S., Chris Kaiser explores and documents the car world’s latest innovations, unique subcultures, and era-defining classics. Armed with a Master's Degree in English from the University of South Dakota, Chris left an academic career to return to writing full-time. He is passionate about covering all aspects of the continuing evolution of personal transportation, but he specializes in automotive history, industry news, and car buying advice.

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