Scientific progress often moves in a seesaw pattern. You have a technology, you then discover a new one that is better in some aspects, and worse in others. Then you find out how to mitigate the downsides of that second technology, finally supplanting the first one, and so on.
Iron vs. Cobalt
It seems to be what is happening with lithium iron phosphate batteries. They have many benefits over the lithium cobalt oxide used in current li-ion batteries; iron costs much less than cobalt, they can deliver large bursts of power (useful in hybrids and electric cars), and they are safer (they are used in the One Laptop Per Child project, for example).
But, it's not all rainbows and puppies. The manufacturing process of iron phosphate batteries is complex and expensive, requiring hours and temperatures as high as 700 °C. That's where the breakthrough comes in...
Reducing Manufacturing Costs of Lithium Iron Phosphate Batteries
Arumugam Manthiram, a professor of materials engineering at the University of Texas at Austin, has shown that a new technique that uses microwaves can reduce both the amount of time it takes, and the temperatures required to make li-iron phosphate batteries.
Manthiram's method involves mixing commercially available chemicals--lithium hydroxide, iron acetate, and phosphoric acid--in a solvent, and then subjecting this mixture to microwaves for five minutes, which heats the chemicals to about 300 °C. The process forms rod-shaped particles [see image above] of lithium iron phosphate. The highest-performing particles are about 100 nanometers long and 25 nanometers wide. The small size is needed to allow lithium ions to move quickly in and out of the particles during charging and discharging of the battery.
It's still too early to tell how this will impact battery production, but it certainly is very promising.
Plug-in Hybrids and Electric Cars that will use Iron Phosphate Batteries
We already know that Chinese automaker BYD will use lithium iron phosphate batteries in its F6DM and F3DM plug-in hybrids, and in its E6 electric car. A123 Systems is also working on them, as well as GM.
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