UMass Boston News

UMass Boston Helps Lead the Way in Developing Electric Vehicles

Brad Smith and Jim Mortenson | August 29, 2012
Recharging an electric car.

On August 23rd and 24th, 2012, the 6th U.S.-China Electric Vehicles and Battery Technology Workshop was convened at UMass Boston, bringing together top researchers and policymakers in the fields of energy and electric vehicles from both the U.S. and China.

The workshop provides an opportunity for the two largest consumers of energy and automobiles in the world to engage in a discussion about the best ways to bring these two technologies into a greener, more efficient, and more affordable future.

"No perfect electric vehicle battery and technology exists yet,” said Hou Xiaohe, from Lishen Battery in China. “We can apply current technology as a good start toward achieving this goal—but [to get there] we have to work together.”

Following the announcement of the U.S.-China Electric Vehicles Initiative from U.S. President Barack Obama and Chinese President Hu Jintao on November 17, 2009, the workshop has been held twice each year, alternating between the U.S. and China. The 6th workshop was hosted at UMass Boston, with co-host Argonne National Laboratory, and sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy and China’s Ministry of Science and Technology.

Currently, all-electric vehicles face several barriers to becoming the primary vehicle for the average American or Chinese driver: today’s lithium-ion batteries are expensive, lack the range of conventional gas vehicles, and require a long time to recharge. Along with the battery barriers, both countries also lack the necessary infrastructure and have not developed common standards in production and testing to support large-scale use of electric vehicles.

Participants from both countries presented research focusing on new battery technologies that overcome some of these barriers. Led by UMass Boston Associate Professor of Chemistry Deyang Qu, lithium-air batteries stole the stage, promising an exponential increase in energy output, which would allow a much larger range for electric vehicles between charges.

“Success in developing a lithium-air battery for practical use, however, remains elusive for researchers throughout the world,” says Qu. He explains that one problem is figuring out how to harness the oxygen while blocking out the moisture in the air, since lithium reacts violently to water. Another obstacle is the low number of times a lithium-air battery can be recharged. Qu’s research group at UMass Boston has achieved 100 charges. That’s well beyond what other researchers have done, but not yet financially viable for consumer use.

Hua Jianfeng from Tsinghua University presented the battery swapping stations that are currently being built throughout China. Due to the limited range and long recharge times of electric vehicles, China has developed fully-automated battery swapping stations that require about two minutes to swap a discharged battery for a fresh one—less time than it takes most of us to fill our cars with gasoline.

These ambitious and game-changing projects will greatly affect the future of electric vehicles in the U.S., China, and the rest of the world. With the ongoing collaboration between these two countries, it seems to be only a matter of time before both the battery technology and infrastructures are in place to allow for efficient and affordable all-electric vehicles to be the norm, and no longer just a dream of the future.

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