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How Exciting Are These New Battery Advances?

Last week, two scientists at MIT, Byoungwoo Kang and Gerbrand Ceder, announced what seeemd like a promising breakthrough in battery technology: a modified lithium-ion battery that could be recharged very quickly. How quickly? Cell phones could recharge in seconds. A 15kWh battery, which is about what the Chevy Volt would need to go 40 miles, could recharge in five minutes, making refueling a lot easier than previously envisioned.

Better yet, the battery doesn't use new material—we already know how to make lithium-ion batteries for computers and cell phones and so forth; all that's different is the way the battery is made, which means the new battery could hit the market in just a few years. Still, I wasn't quite sure what it might mean for the future of electric cars until reading Josie Garthwaite's excellent post:

In itself, the battery breakthrough of the month won’t change your life—not the car you drive, the source of electricity for your town or the way you use energy in your home.

Ceder and Kang have been clear about this, though they’ve set an ambitious timeline, saying the technology could be on the market within two to three years. Rizzoni emphasized hurdles beyond manufacturing (also mentioned in MIT’s release about the study), noting that major infrastructure investments (hello, stimulus) would be necessary to achieve the rapid charge times their research has opened up as a possibility. Even if production was a done deal, standard outlets wouldn’t pack enough punch to give the batteries a full charge within minutes.

So where does this leave energy storage research? Taken in combination, recent breakthroughs—which also include 3M’s recently announced battery balancing technology—reflect an industry very much on the move. With a massive injection of federal dollars for battery, energy storage and vehicle research, it’s poised to accelerate. But to put it bluntly, none of the recent breakthroughs will translate to mass transformation of the auto or energy industry unless costs come down (including those associated with licensing proprietary technology) and production ramps up.

So it's an exciting breakthrough (much like news of a potential "spin battery" that uses magnets to power up), but there's still plenty of grunt work to be done to bring affordable electric cars to the marketplace. Sounds about right.

--Bradford Plumer