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    Range Warrior

    Spring 2014

    By Richard Harth

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    Electric vehicles are dramatically changing the way people move from place to place, ushering in an era of cleaner transportation. But according to Carlo Segre, Duchossois Leadership Professor of Physics at Illinois Institute of Technology, there is still one big hitch: the distance such vehicles can travel before needing to be recharged.

    Segre says that the more affordable electric vehicles today can travel approximately 100 miles on a single charge, and for some drivers, this presents what he refers to as "range anxiety"—a predicament Segre hopes to address through his research.

    In a three-year, $3.4 million project funded by the United States Department of Energy Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E), Segre's interdisciplinary team, including IIT collaborator John Katsoudas (PHYS '97, M.S. '04); Vijay Ramani, Hyosung S. R. Cho Endowed Chair Professor of Chemical Engineering at IIT; and collaborators from Argonne National Laboratory—Elena Timofeeva, Dileep Singh, John Zhang, and Michael Duoba (ME '91)—will design and construct a new kind of battery for such vehicles.

    The range issue, Segre explains, is due to the limited energy per unit volume (or energy density) available in conventional lithium-ion (li-ion) batteries suitable for electric cars.

    "If you could increase the energy density by a factor of five, you've got a 500-mile range," he says. "That takes care of a lot of problems."

    The RANGE (Robust Affordable Next Generation EV-Storage) program is ARPA-E's ambitious funding effort designed to accelerate widespread electric vehicle adoption by dramatically improving their driving range, cost, and reliability. Segre's proposal involves the design of a prototype EV scalable flow battery that uses high-energy density nanoelectrofuel.

    Li-ion batteries currently used in electric vehicles have the advantage of high cell voltage and energy density compared to previous generations of car batteries, but as Segre notes, there have always been drawbacks. In addition to energy-density limitations, there are multiple issues such as thermal runaway, gradual degradation of electrode materials, shortening the battery lifespan, and long charging times.

    The group's new approach has the potential to greatly increase the energy density and lifespan of vehicle batteries, while eliminating the need for lengthy recharging altogether. The trick, Segre explains, is in the battery fuel itself.

    Carlo Segre
    Carlo Segre
    Photo: Michael Goss

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