Science being another thing The Guardian doesn’t understand

A newly identified group of materials could help recharge batteries faster, raising the possibility of smartphones that charge fully in minutes and accelerating the adoption of major clean technologies like electric cars and solar energy, say researchers.

The speed at which a battery can be charged depends partly upon the rate at which positively charged particles, called lithium ions, can move towards a negatively charged electrode where they are then stored. A limiting factor in making “super” batteries that charge rapidly is the speed at which these lithium ions migrate, usually through ceramic materials.

There are many different battery technologies, all of which do involve ions*. Most of which do not involve lithium. Thus lithium ions – despite being part of one battery technology – are not common to all battery technologies.

Now, researchers at the University of Cambridge have identified a group of materials called niobium tungsten oxides through which lithium ions can move at astonishingly high rates, meaning much faster charging batteries.

Well, yes, that is interesting.

Another advantage of these alternative materials is that they are cheap and straightforward to make. “These oxides are easy to make and don’t require additional chemicals or solvents,” said Griffith.

That’s interestingly wrong. A major source of Nb being that coltan which produces the Ta for mobile phone capacitors. You know, all that blood minerals stuff all over again? Yes, there are other sources but still. And it’s not cheap. The Ti (note, the oxide, not the metal) is hundreds of $ per tonne, yup, that’s cheap. We can divert the stuff we use in white paint if we desire. But the Nb? Definitely dollars per pound, perhaps tens of $ per lb. Not exactly what we do call cheap.

And if we’re to get it from Ta containing minerals (not an absolute necessity) we’ve got significant processing pollution (using hydrofluoric acid is not for the faint of heart and yes, we do have to) and again significant radioactive residue (there’s always Th in them thar hills).

Oh, and reprocessing Nb and Ti mixtures isn’t easy. OK, my experience is with the metals but still….

*OK, possible to argue here but good enough.

Ah, yes, I have mixed Ti and W, haven’t I? Sigh, still, this was worth what you paid for it then.

49 thoughts on “Science being another thing The Guardian doesn’t understand”

  1. Uhm, one easy way – that already exists – to charge batteries faster is to oversize them and them limit at what point the device reads ‘100%’.

    If your battery is 2-3 times larger than it needs to be to reach your design criteria and its jiggered to give false readings to the device sensors, then you can basically always keep it in the optimal range for quick charging.

    Its only when the battery is near full that charging speed has to slow down. Between 33-67% of full capacity is where it charges the fastest.

  2. And I’m pretty sure the ‘lithium ions’ don’t migrate. At all. The negative charges do, ionizing/deionizing lithium atoms as they go. So its the build up of negative charge in the battery that makes it harder to stuff in more negative charge as the battery nears capacity, not the speed at which physical materials are moving around inside the thing.

  3. A full-size pure electric vehicle with a decent range (say 300 miles) requires a battery capacity of ~100kWh. Charging that up to 80%* within a few minutes requires a power level > 1MW. Apart from the challenge of allowing Joe Public to make/break connections at that power level (and grapple with the cable sizes needed to carry it), no physical process is 100% efficient. Assuming we could achieve an ambitious 95% efficiency rate, that’s 50kW of heat being generated that has to go somewhere.

    * No fast chargers go higher than this, because the efficiency of charging inevitable drops as batteries approach 100% capacity, The final few percent is achieved by ‘trickle’ charging at a much slower rate. Weirdly, manufacturers rarely consider this when quoting the maximum ‘range’ for their vehicles.

  4. Don’t really understand why you’re folding in Ti – Titanium with this story. As far as I know Ti’s not been used in battery tech as cathode, anode or electrolyte. Wrong number of electrons in the outer shell? But yes, Titanium oxide’s the major white pigment in paint.

    And Chris Miller’s entirely right about the difficulty of charging large batteries. The bottleneck’s the connection to the battery & the amount of current has to pass through it. And, of course, the battery itself. No process is 100% efficient & the inefficiency must come out as heat. With a large car battery that’d be in kilowatts. Think of it as trying to burn off a few litres of petrol every time you filled your tank. That’s a lot of heat to get rid of.

  5. Almost every week on I read a ‘battery breakthrough’ story, and none ever get beyond that. It’s got to be a game-changer to progress to manufacturing, and be manufacturable to boot.

    As for fast charging, that’s also largely pie in the sky, as noted above. It’s really hard to beat the energy density of the hydrocarbon fuels, and the effective power flow (energy/time) when filling a fuel tank.

  6. Bloke in Germany in Hospital

    Why isn’t it possible to have standard sizes of battery that can be swapped out at charging stations? The batteries belonging to some (set of competing) batteryCo(s) and loaned our on deposit with the customer paying for “juice” at each swap out?

    You then take a 5 minute stop and swap while browsing the overpriced snacks and drinks.

    Should be only slightly more difficult than changing the batteries in a toy car.

    And yes we already do this with lithium batteries in smaller kit like cameras.

  7. BiGiH: but we own both (or N) camera batteries. Not feasible with cars, so we rely on some battery swap organisation with rigid QC standards… Good luck with that one!

  8. @BiGiH
    “Should be only slightly more difficult than changing the batteries in a toy car.”

    And the batteries in a toy car are what? Third to half the weight of the car? Even the polymer Li batteries in drones are a substantial proportion of the weight of the aircraft. And only give about 10 minutes flying time.
    So you’re talking about swapping a battery weighing 2/300 kilos. Plus the capital cost of having at least two batteries per car on the road

  9. So using Chris Miller’s figures, which look eminently reasonable, that’s dumping 50kW of waste heat per pump.
    My local petrol station has 12 pumps, and whenever I fill up, it’s busy. 600kW waste heat. Dump it into the local stream and boil the fish? Nope, it’ll have to go into the air. 600kW into the air is a huge mass flow. In common parlance, this is a jet engine.
    Running pretty much continuously, in a residential area.
    So move all the recharging stations atleast 5 miles outside the towns so the noise just ruins the countryside…..Yep, that’ll sell.
    And that’s without addressing where all this electricity comes from, or who is paying, or the magic batteries that actually allow to drive home afterwards, in the rain, in the dark, with demist on.
    On the upside, its a good indications of who can easily be conned….

  10. One thing never gets mentioned is what happens if something goes wrong.
    The energy contained in an AA battery is roughly equivalent to the cartridge propels a bullet from a pistol (equal mass of candle wax would be 4 x that.) But like candles, you can’t get it all out in one go. But if you’re designing a battery, it’s possible to charge in a short period, the chemical reaction is going to be equally fast in the opposite direction.
    We do use batteries it’s possible to discharge very quickly. Lead/acid batteries, as used to start ICE cars. Lead acid batteries are also capable of producing high current arcs at plasma temperatures. Thousands of degrees. You can cut half inch steel bar with the arc from a car battery.
    An excursion from a high discharge rate automotive sized battery could be quite impressive…

  11. Bloke in Germany in Hospital

    If you pay per quantity of charge used or per distance driven you aren’t worried about the condition of the battery.

    My question is more about how technically feasible it is. The market will work out the best way of paying for it.

    This has to be an option for vehies taken on long drives. Lorries for a concrete example.

  12. Bloke in Germany in Hospital


    Something like a glorified fork lift truck could do the job.

    And we don’t have a problem with the capital cost of all the oil infrastructure and petrol sitting around on forecourts. Besides if each car typically needs one charge a week and a charge takes, say, half a day, you could run the thing with perhaps 1.3 batteries per car, not 2.

  13. Tractor Gent said:
    “It’s really hard to beat the energy density of the hydrocarbon fuels, and the effective power flow (energy/time) when filling a fuel tank.”

    Is it just me, or have they slowed down petrol pumps recently? It seems to take around 25% longer to fill up.

    And is this to reduce the difference between petrol and electric, to make us feel less unhappy about being forced to switch?

  14. Bloke in Germany in Hospital said:
    “Should be only slightly more difficult than changing the batteries in a toy car.”

    When I change the batteries in the children’s toy cars, I picked the car up and turned it upside down to get at them. I’m not saying it’s not possible, but scaling up to something that weighs a ton and a half sounds a bit more than “slightly more difficult”.

  15. BiS

    One thing never gets mentioned is what happens if something goes wrong.

    An excursion from a high discharge rate automotive sized battery could be quite impressive…

    If the potential energy of a fully charged super duper battery is the same as for a full tank of highly inflammatory petrol, would the “uncontrolled” discharge scenario be of a similar-ish order?

    Yes, I know petrol needs oxygen etc, but *ultimately* wouldn’t it be a case of trying to match safety standards with the level of risk for any given scenario?

  16. Bloke in Germany in Hospital

    from my hospital window I am watching thousand tonne barges float past every few minutes. They can go from Rotterdam to Romania.

    Are you really saying it is beyond the wit of man to design a battery such that it can be fitted and unfitted to a vehicle in a few minutes?

    Why does the vehicle have to rely on a battery that immobilises the vehicle for hours at every charge cycle?

    Maybe I should be asking this question over at the other tims place (hint hint).

  17. ‘Electric cars and grid-scale storage for solar power are two environmentally friendly technologies that could be revolutionised by better batteries.’

    Why would they need revolutionizing? A tacit admission that they suck.

    We’ve been getting reports of revolutionary batteries for years. But this time, THIS TIME, will be different. The Guardian prints speculative crap like this to get people to believe that revolutionary change is pending. It’s not.

  18. @PF
    The “Yes, I know petrol needs oxygen etc” is actually very important here. The energy in a tank of petrol is equivalent to around a quarter of a ton of TNT. But, apart from in Hollywood action films, you’ll rarely see cars exploding after accidents. Like the candle, the reaction’s limited by the amount of oxygen available to support the combustion process.
    Likewise the discharge rate of a battery is limited by the chemical processes within it. Faster you make the processes run, faster the energy can come out.

  19. To try & answer BiG’s question, you’d have to look at the design of the vehicle.
    Because of the mass of the battery, it can’t be stuck somewhere convenient like the front or the back. The balance of the vehicle wouldn’t permit it. It’d drive appallingly. It has to go under or be integrated with the floor pan. Integrated, the structural strength of the battery pack can be shared with the structural strength of the floor pan. ie the structural members are doing two jobs. For a removable battery pack, you’ve essentially two sets of structural members. One sufficient to provide the strength to keep a large area but relatively shallow, high mass battery pack from distorting when it’s off the car. And another set on the vehicle, to provide rigidity to the vehicle & support the weight of the fitted battery pack. All of this requires mass & volume in a thing where you’re trying to contain mass & volume. If you don’t, the size of the vehicle needed to provide the capacity required of the vehicle as a vehicle starts to rise. Electric cars become very big or don’t have much room in them.

  20. Capacity of a container (which a battery is) is determined by its size. That is the problem with electric vehicles, the size of the containers, plus the electricity is needed for more than just locomotion (heating, aircon, lights, etc) limits range. Bigger/more batteries means more weight to cart around, means more drain on the batteries.

    Speedy charging does not alter that.

    Batteries in devices have got smaller, part due to better battery technology but also because circuitry and software have been improved to reduce power requirements substantially. Can the same happen in vehicles?

    And where would the extra electricity generation and grid infrastructure come from to replace the internal combustion engine… and at what cost?

  21. Actually, this is quite an interesting engineering problem. You can reduce the mass & volume of the structural members the more you integrate the battery pack into the structure of the car. This really depends on the amount of connecting points there are between the structure of the battery pack & the structure of the vehicle.The more you have, the less structure you need between them, on both. But, essentially here, you’re talking about latches. And latches have mass & the more you have the more the mass of latches. And the more latches you have the more complicated the fixing system. The latches become smaller & less robust & more likely to fail.
    If you go too far down this route, a battery swap becomes an event with a significant failure rate. And a failure removes both the vehicle & the battery pack from the vehicle fleet.

  22. Bloke in Germany in Hospital

    We stick the engine in the front of most cars though. If you have ever driven a lotus you will appreciate the benefits of middle engine placement but it’s obviously not practical for a normal car. So instead we already compromise on the handling.

  23. The Green Answer – a battery pack at the front AND the back.

    Mind you thinking of luggage and crash safety this isn’t probably a good idea either. A small bomb at the bit where crashes are most likely to occur won’t really work, especially when that lesson was learned the hard way before with cars, and their occupants, burning up after impacts.

  24. Are you really saying it is beyond the wit of man to design a battery such that it can be fitted and unfitted to a vehicle in a few minutes?

    They’re heavy, so need to be in the base of the car in the middle otherwise the thing will be undrivable. That makes them extremely difficult to get in and out: EVs seem to be largely built around the battery.

  25. We stick the engine in the front of most cars though.

    With the gearbox towards the centre, the fuel tank in the rear-centre, and the cargo area at the back.

  26. @BiG
    “We stick the engine in the front of most cars though.”
    Not exactly. With most cars the mass of the engine is mostly behind the centres of the front wheels with the centre of mass of the vehicle a lot further back than that. Cars with significant mass outside the wheelbase tend to revolve very readily.
    But a FWD ICE & its drivechain is a relatively small, dense assembly. A battery pack is much less dense & thus larger. Shifting the passenger area back, again implies a much larger vehicle.
    Oh & Lotus 7, thanks. In fact, thinking about another one. (Buying not building, alas.) Now I live somewhere that they’re practical.

  27. “that lesson was learned the hard way before with cars, and their occupants, burning up after impacts”: well that will at least help Save the NHS, which is the only thing that matters.

  28. On the safety topic, a year or two back, Richard Hammond of Top Gear/Grand Tour fame narrowly escaped with his life when he crashed a car (in Switzerland – or Austria?) and it burst into flames. It was an electric car, no fuel. The fire was uncontrollable. The media did not think to ask why such a big fire with no fuel…
    I await with trepidation the first Formula 1 battery fire mid-race. You cannot put out a Lithium fire. Stuff will burn in carbon dioxide, burn in nitrogen, try water and you will get a hydrogen explosion. 5 tons of liquid argon might do it.
    And all coming to a car park near you. Joy.

  29. BiS / TIm

    That’s interesting, thanks. I’m curious as to how a battery (of that size / potential threat) could ever pass any safety standard if (in theory, never mind in practice) it’s near impossible to contain / subdue in case of “an event”.

  30. Look out for web videos of exploding laptops.
    I saw one, when everyone was back at the coffee machine. With no trigger, a foreground laptop went off like an incendiary.
    Good thing indeed they were all at coffee.
    There’s a phrase, cognitive dissonance (or some such) when the need to believe in magic batteries to support windmills and “electric” cars conflicts with the observed realities of safety.
    Of course, it’s always reality what’s in the wrong.
    NB look up Tesla fires. Another sport.

  31. Incidentally, Tim mentions hydrofluoric acid in conjunction with metal extraction. This stuff is beyond nasty & out the other side. I’ve used for stripping enamel off of damaged jewellery. It’s one of the few things will dissolve glass. It’s kept in a plastic bottle & that’ll be full of lethal fumes, if it’s not refrigerated. One becomes blasé about strong acids & even cyanide salts. But HF one treats with respect

  32. HF – splash a bit on your skin and 20 minutes later your heart stops. Does something to calcium uptake, or nerve electricity and calcium, summat like that. horrible, horrible, stuff.

  33. I’ve no idea about all this electrical stuff but i do know that the Guardian (turns and spits) is invariably wrong about most things. I am surprised they are not arguing for faster electricity (if that’s a thing i apologise in advance)

  34. @BiS, July 26, 2018 at 12:13 pm

    Good point on batteries being structural part of floorpan/sills – don’t know if they are.

    Since 1980s motorcycles have increasingly used engine & gearbox as a stressed member of frame(chassis) and shaft drive bikes use shaft as part of suspension. With bikes it’s to reduce weight.

    Prior to this they were usually rubber mounted (like car engines) to reduce NVH. NVH now dealt with by balance shafts and mass dampers (eg the metal lumps on ends of handlebars).

  35. @Bloke in Germany in Hospital, July 26, 2018 at 12:33 pm

    +1 TimN, July 26, 2018 at 1:45 pm

    Transverse FWD are designed so most of the engine/gearbox is behind the front “axle” front-mid is a better term.

    NS RWD are similar with most of gearbox below front passenger area, some move gearbox to rear – transaxle.

  36. Bloke No Longer in Austria

    Another thing that makes BiG’s battery swap-out impracticable is that the battery isn’t just one big unit, it is lots of smaller batteries distributed on the floor of the vehicle. Just like if one dismantles the battery on an old cordless drill and finds 4 “D” type batteries inside,

    Moqifen puts me in mind of an ancient Electricity Board advert ( using Beethoven’s Third) that claimed leccy travelled at light-speed. It bloody doesn’t it travels at Electricty Speed, electrons have mass and so can’t travel as fast as photons. Mind you, there is this wireless charging one can get these days, so that is “faster” electricity, I suppose…

  37. My main car is ‘electric’ (plug-in hybrid*) and only has a ‘small’ 12kWh battery. But despite that, the owner’s manual is full of warnings never to try home maintenance. Take off a few protective covers and there are plenty of areas where you can come into contact with cables or busbars capable of delivering 200A at 300V DC – enough to ruin your whole day. For the same reason, garages that haven’t sent their mechanics off on specialist courses won’t touch them (quite rightly).

    * I’m under no illusion that I’m saving the planet, but I am saving thousands in taxes 🙂

  38. Um, sorry BNLiA, but electricty DOES travel at the speed of light (in the local dielectric), almost c in air, about 50% c in plastic cables.
    The electron drift speed is indeed very slow (mm/s) but irrelevant to the electricity.
    Switch 1kv into 300m of air-spaced cable and 1us later it comes out the end. So dont rely upon slow electrons!
    But I fully agree with you on the impracticality of swap-out battery packs. They will be 50% of the weight of the vehicle, so crash retention will need more than some clips…
    And I laugh at wireless charging. The Grauniad types shriek in horror at a few hundred mW of mobile phone radiation, yet will accept 50kW of wireless charging…not!. More than enough to boil their labrador.
    Best idea I’ve seen for car charging is parallel metal strips down the road. [/sarc], Or a trailer with diesel generator, Top Gear style.
    NB that missing Malasia airliner had a big cargo of lithium batteries. It all went very quiet when fire was suggested.

  39. I’ve got a couple of electric bikes – they are great fiun especially the pff road one. I can charge them in my hallway. A car would be a different matter – i live in a road of terraced houses. My car today is parked 100 yards away from the house so charging overnite is impratical. IF and it’s a big if cars could be charged as fast as it takes to fill up with fuel at some charge point like a service station then maybe i’d give an electric car a chance. Currently having to drive to waitrose (nearest charge point ) and hang around for several hours is not on my to do list. Actually i i had an off road parking space i’d quite fancy owning an american muscle car – i was offered a transam for £11k the other day which seemed in pretty good nick.

  40. I always struggle with the issue that people have about how long it takes to charge electric cars. I’ve owned a Tesla for almost a year and have only had to fast charge it once. My wife has an i3 and has never charged it anywhere other than at home. I’ve fast charged the Tesla a few times if I’ve been somewhere with fast chargers, but only because they were available and the electricity was free (and once was because someone else was plugged into the overnight slow charger; but the hotel has now installed a couple more chargers as a result).

    The time when I have had to fast charge was on a long weekend trip down to Taupo where we wanted to go via Rotorua. About 2.5 hours into the trip we stopped off, plugged the car in, walked to a nearby cafe, ordered our drinks to takeaway, emptied our bladders, picked up the drinks, walked back to the car and unplugged. It wasn’t the most arduous task and wouldn’t have been any slower than doing the same when filling up with petrol.

    Other than this time I plug the car in overnight twice a week and that’s it; my wife does the same with her car.

    The real issues are around charging at home and in cities; I think investing in on-street slow charging is probably more useful than figuring out how to charge in 30 seconds in “petrol station”-like environments. There is a change in mindset with electric vehicles; but once you have done it they really are great!

  41. “here is a change in mindset with electric vehicles”
    Indeed, the mindset is not to use them for travel, for that you need a real car.
    They are good for very local trips (in good weather) only, and only for people with large houses with private off-road parking (upmarket in UK).
    I’ve no idea of the NZ climate for driving, but in the UK for half the year you need headlights, demist and lots of heating, on top of the propulsion.
    Have you seen the looming class action against Nissan, when it turned out their electric car can only be fast charged once per day. Useless for long journeys.
    They do however dodge lots of road tax and excise duties, making them a financiai boon for those whose wealth and mobility needs are aligned, but that will end if they ever become more than a rounding error.

  42. Some are great for long trips; my Tesla is easily the most relaxing vehicle I’ve driven. Others not so much (the i3 only does 200km, but then it is a city car and does less than that in a week). Things like demisters and heating though are standard, with app control and heat pumps both of our cars are dry, demisted, warm and (in mine) the seat heaters are on 15 minutes before I leave for work and 10 minutes before I drive home.

    The Leaf has always been a bottom spec city car; no thermal management system means that they should never be fast charged at all. This type of car, like our i3, is perfect for cities though, with no localised pollution; but you do need off-street parking for them. In NZ this is reasonably normal even in cities, but quite a few apartments are now getting chargers put into their underground storage. City cars can charge on normal 3 pin plugs overnight, but the Tesla takes 24 hours on one so we put a 32amp AC charger in.

    It is horses for courses though; I know a couple of people who have the EV for commuting and an ICE for trips, and someone else who just hires a ICE twice a year for trips. Not for everyone but they are for me. Super fast charging is still almost irrelevant though as most people rarely travel more than 200km a day; or 500km in a “long-range” EV.

    Oh, and we don’t get purchase subsidies or reduced road tax here. We do, however, avoid Road User Charges (these apply to diesels where the fuel price doesn’t have road taxes built in but will apply to EVs when 2% of the fleet is electric); this probably saves about $250 a year (GBP125).

  43. Just re-read the last bit about tax it is wasn’t well written. Basically all diesel in NZ is sold as the UK’s Red Diesel for farming. Diesel engines vehicles then have to pay road user charges when they are driven on the road. The norm is that an assumption is made that cars, vans etc are used on road and tractors etc aren’t; but you can get GPS logging that means that you do only pay for the on-road per km use. You generally buy these charges in 5,000 to 10,000km lots.

    EVs will become liable to RUCs when they hit 2% of the fleet, until then it isn’t worth the Government spending the time to work out how to charge them as they aren’t losing much revenue and they have to figure out what to do about plug-in hybrids that could avoid charges altogether or be hit twice in petrol and RUCs.

    The funny thing is that if the cars were subsidised then I wouldn’t buy one; I don’t want to be in a position where poor people are forced to subsidise my purchase of $100,000+ cars!

  44. They do however dodge lots of road tax and excise duties .. but that will end if they ever become more than a rounding error.

    Exactly! Ditto the free leccy (if that’s how it works?). Instead it may even be “leccy duty” (to replace that lost on gas), as a different reality starts to take form.

  45. Thanks James in NZ, very informative.
    But they are not for me though. Crowded UKroads, street parking, frequent jams.
    As an aside, we in UK appear to be removing all our motorway hard-shoulders at exactly the same time as encouraging uptake of cars with short ranges, liable to run out of juice if their journey is delayed by typical motorway congestion. Hmmm. I wonder if anyone has modelled the snowball effect of delays causing power-exhaustion causing more delay causing…what % is the threshold where this becomes unstoppable?

  46. The free leccy is a commercial thing, not government subsidised. Electricity and lines companies are putting in DC chargers and providing them for free to encourage people to move to EVs. Take a loss now as the infrastructure goes in and hope to drive demand meaning that profits in the future are greater.

    Some of these freebies are coming to an end though as free chargers are now discouraging the installation of a commercial charging network so they are starting to work together on billing solutions.

    At home the cars charge up on our, unsubsidised, low rate power overnight.

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