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Posted: Jul 18, 2013

A new life for the electric car batteries

(Nanowerk News) Electric car batteries “retire” at the latest after five years in use. At that moment they still retain about 80% of their charge and discharge capacity yet they are no longer valid for such a demanding environment like the car, which is why they are scrapped and hardly any of their materials are recycled.
In this context the Basque research centre IK4-IKERLAN is leading ‘Batteries 2020’, the first European project that is seeking to improve the batteries of electric vehicles and, once they can no longer be used for this purpose, to take advantage of their storing capacity by giving them a second lease of life as accumulators for renewable energies.
Through ‘Batteries 2020’, a project which was signed recently and which is due to be launched in September, Europe is hoping to be a pioneer in designing strategies to take advantage of the potential that scrapped batteries still have for a second lease of life. This initiative has been organised to achieve precisely that; it has an 8-million euro budget, partly funded by the European Union through the 7th Framework Programme.
To achieve these ambitious aims, a consortium has been set up; it is being led by IK4-IKERLAN and has the participation of companies and organisations leading the way in their respective fields, like Umicore, Leclanché, FIAT and Abengoa, the universities of Aachen, Germany (through its ISEA and IME institutes), Aalborg (Denmark), and Brussels. It will also be collaborating in the dissemination of the project Eurobat, the European Association of battery manufacturers.
Apart from coordinating the whole project, the Basque R&D centre will be researching strategies designed to extend the useful life of batteries, and studying their dependability. It will also undertake to establish how to make them function more efficiently in their first life and to study what parameters they need to have so they can be reused in the above-mentioned second lease of life.
A storage system for renewables
Achieving a system to store the electricity produced by means of renewable energies is crucial. Nowadays, when a wind turbine produces energy, the energy is not stored but fed directly into the grid, which leads to production peaks depending on whether it is very windy or not; the same thing happens with solar energy.
The lack of flexibility of the energy produced using renewable sources when it comes to addressing demand is in fact one of the problems hampering its application. Photovoltaic panels are a case in point: they do not produce energy when it is needed, but when the sun shines. Today, solar energy is fed into the grid when it is produced, but that moment does not necessarily coincide with the moment of greatest demand during the day.
On very sunny days this can cause considerable instability in the distribution networks. This problem means that it is not possible to produce more that 20% or 30% of the total energy by means of renewables. One way of increasing this percentage would be to store the energy when it is produced and feed it into the grid only when needed.
The accumulators that will be developed in the project led by IK4-IKERLAN will be used to store energy produced in industrial as well as domestic facilities. In fact, high demand for collectors of this type is anticipated in markets like Germany, where there are a considerable number of photovoltaic panels installed in private homes (about 20 gigawatts).
These panels produce energy during the day when domestic consumption is lower. Exactly the same thing happens with industrial facilities. “Using a storage system would make energy available at times of greater demand, it is an advance that would allow the renewables to break their ‘glass ceiling’, which would benefit a ‘greener’ economy,” concludes Igor Villarreal, an IK4-IKERLAN researcher and head of the 'Batteries 2020' project.”
Better batteries
Apart from seeking strategies for reusing them, the ‘Batteries 2020’ project sets out to substantially improve the batteries of electric cars. The aim is to provide them with between 30% and 40% more capacity with respect to their volume compared with the current ones, and to guarantee their dependability. A bid will also be made to double their useful life compared with the ones currently existing on the market.
So the ‘Batteries 2020’ initiative will be contributing towards addressing the threefold challenge the EU has set for 2020: to increase energy efficiency by 20%, to promote renewables until they account for 20% of the total, and to cut carbon dioxide emissions by 20%.
Commercial pre-product by 2016
In accordance with the deadlines set, this project is expected to result in a commercial pre-product by 2016. ‘Batteries 2020’ is part of the EU’s 'Green Car’ initiative which is seeking to generate the knowledge needed to improve the performance of electric cars. This initiative is being driven by the fact that while it has been possible to cut CO2 emissions in power generation, this objective is not being achieved to the same extent in the automotive sector.
Apart from the environmental aspect, the EU is also seeking to situate itself in competitive positions on a market that has such a bright future as that of electric cars. Japan, China and the United States lead in this field, and the aim of the European institutions is to set up a research and production network that will not only release the continent from its technological dependence in this area, but will also put it at the head of this niche.
As Francisco Blanco, Head of the Basque R&D centre’s Energy Unit, pointed out, “thanks to this project, we at IK4-IKERLAN are being offered a tremendous opportunity to collaborate with leading organisations worldwide and to generate knowledge that we will subsequently be able to transfer to the industrial base around us, and thus contribute towards its competitiveness.”
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