Tag Archives: batteries

Alkaline batteries have second lives

Most people assume that alkaline batteries are one-time only, throwaway items. Some have used rechargeable cells, but these are Ni-metal hydride, or Ni-Cads, expensive variants that have lower power densities than normal alkaline batteries, and almost impossible to find in stores. It would be nice to be able to recharge ordinary alkaline batteries, e.g. when a smoke alarm goes off in the middle of the night and you find you’re out, but people assume this is impossible. People assume incorrectly.

Modern alkaline batteries are highly efficient: more efficient than even a few years ago, and that always suggests reversibility. Unlike the acid batteries you learned about in highschool chemistry class (basic chemistry due to Volta) the chemistry of modern alkaline batteries is based on Edison’s alkaline car batteries. They have been tweaked to an extent that even the non-rechargeable versions can be recharged. I’ve found I can reliably recharge an ordinary alkaline cell, 9V, at least once using the crude means of a standard 12 V car battery charger by watching the amperage closely. It only took 10 minutes. I suspect I can get nine lives out of these batteries, but have not tried.

To do this experiment, I took a 9 V alkaline that had recently died, and finding I had no replacement, I attached it to a 6 Amp, 12 V, car battery charger that I had on hand. I would have preferred to use a 2 A charger and ideally a charger designed to output 9-10 V, but a 12 V charger is what I had available, and it worked. I only let it charge for 10 minutes because, at that amperage, I calculated that I’d recharged to the full 1 Amp-hr capacity. Since the new alkaline batteries only claimed 1 amp hr, I figured that more charge would likely do bad things, even perhaps cause the thing to blow up.  After 5 minutes, I found that the voltage had returned to normal and the battery worked fine with no bad effects, but went for the full 10 minutes. Perhaps stopping at 5 would have been safer.

I changed for 10 minutes (1/6 hour) because the battery claimed a capacity of 1 Amp-hour when new. My thought was 1 amp-hour = 1 Amp for 1 hour, = 6 Amps for 1/6 hour = ten minutes. That’s engineering math for you, the reason engineers earn so much. I figured that watching the recharge for ten minutes was less work and quicker than running to the store (20 minutes). I used this battery in my firm alarm, and have tested it twice since then to see that it works. After a few days in my fire alarm, I took it out and checked that the voltage was still 9 V, just like when the battery was new. Confirming experiments like this are a good idea. Another confirmation occurred when I overcooked some eggs and the alarm went off from the smoke.

If you want to experiment, you can try a 9V as I did, or try putting a 1.5 volt AA or AAA battery in a charger designed for rechargeables. Another thought is to see what happens when you overcharge. Keep safe: do this in a wood box outside at a distance, but I’d like to know how close I got to having an exploding energizer. Also, it would be worthwhile to try several charge/ discharge cycles to see how the energy content degrades. I expect you can get ~9 recharges with a “non-rechargeable” alkaline battery because the label says: “9 lives,” but even getting a second life from each battery is a significant savings. Try using a charger that’s made for rechargeables. One last experiment: If you’ve got a cell phone charger that works on a car battery, and you get the polarity right, you’ll find you can use a 9V alkaline to recharge your iPhone or Android. How do I know? I judged a science fair not long ago, and a 4th grader did this for her science fair project.

Robert Buxbaum, April 19, 2018. For more, semi-dangerous electrochemistry and biology experiments.

Hydrogen powered trucks and busses

With all the attention to electric cars, I figure that we’re either at the dawn of electric propulsion vehicles or of electric propulsion vehicle hype. Elon Musk’s Tesla motor car company stock is now valued at $59 B, more than GM or Ford despite the company having massive losses and few cars. The valuation, I suspect, has to do with the future and autonomous vehicles. There are many who expect self-driving vehicles will rule the road, but the form is uncertain. In this space, i suspect that hydrogen-battery hybrids make more sense than batteries alone, and that the first large-impact uses will be trucks and busses — vehicles that go long distance on highways.

Factory floor, hydrogen fueling station for plug-power forklifts. Plug FCs reached their 10 millionth refueling this January.

Factory floor, hydrogen fueling station for fuel cell forklifts. This company’s fuel cells have had over 10 million refuelings so far.

Currently there are only two bands of autonomous vehicles available in the US, the Cadillac CT6, a gasoline powered car, and the Tesla. Neither work well except on highways because the number of highway problems are fewer than the number of city problems and only the CT6 allows you to take your hands off the wheel — see review here. To me, being able to take your hand off the wheel is the only real point of autonomous control, and if one can only do this only on the highway, that’s acceptable. Highway driving gets quite tiring after the first hundred miles or so, and any relief is welcome.

Tesla’s battery cars allow for some auto-driving on the highway, but you can’t take your hand off the wheel or the car stops. That battery cars compete at all for highway driving, I suspect, is only possible because the US government highly subsidizes the battery cost. Musk then hides the true cost among the corporate losses. Without this, hydrogen – fuel cell vehicles would be cheaper, I suspect, while providing better range, see my calculation here. Adding to the advantage of hydrogen over batteries, the charge time for hydrogen is much faster. Slow charge times are a real drawback for highway vehicles traveling any significant distances. While hydrogen fuel isn’t cheap — it’s becoming cheaper and is now about double the price of gasoline on a per mile basis. The advantage over gasoline is it provides pollution-free, electric propulsion, and this is well suited to driverless vehicles. Both gasoline and battery vehicles can have odd acceleration issues, e.g. when the gasoline gets wet, or the battery gets run down. And it’s not like there are no hydrogen fueling stations. Hydrogen, fuel-cell power has become a major competitor for fork-lifts, and has recently had its ten million refueling in that application. The same fueling stations that serve the larger fork-lift users could serve the self-driving truck and bus market.

For round the town use, hydrogen vehicles could still use batteries, and the combined vehicle can have very impressive performance. A Dutch company has begun to sell kits to convert Tesla model S autos to combined battery + hydrogen. With these kits, they boast a 620 mile (1000 km) range instead of the normal 240 miles. See the product here.  On the horizon, in the self-driving fuel cell market, Hyundai has debuted the “Nexo” with a range of 370 miles. Showing off the self-driving capability, Nexos were used to carry spectators between venues at the Pyongyang olympics. Japanese competitors, the Toyota Mirai (312 miles) and the Honda Clarity Fuel Cell (366 miles) can be expected to provide similar capabilities.

Cadillac CT6 with supercruise. An antonymous vehicle that you can buy today that allows you to take your hand off the wheel.

Cadillac CT6 with supercruise. An antonymous vehicle that you can buy today that allows you to take your hand off the wheel.

The reason I believe in hydrogen Trucks and Busses more than cars is the difficulty of refueling, Southern California has installed some 36 public hydrogen refueling stations at last count, but that’s too few for most personal car use. Other states have even fewer spots where you can drive up and get hydrogen; Michigan has only two. This does not matter for a commercial truck or bus because they go between fixed depots and these can be fitted with hydrogen dispensers as found for forklifts. It’s possible trucks can even use the same dispensers as the forklifts. If one needs a little extra range one can add a “hydrogen Jerry can” to provide an extra kg of H2 to provide 20-30 miles of emergency range. I do not see electric vehicles working as well because the charge times are so slow, the range so modest, and the electric power needs so large. To charge a 100 kWhr battery in an hour, the charge station would have to have an electric feed of 100 kW, about as much as a typical mall. With 100A, 240 V, the most you can normally get, expect a 4 1/2 hour charge.

The real benefit for hydrogen trucks and busses is autonomy. Being able to run the route without major input from a driver. So why not gasoline, as with the Cadillac? My answer is simplicity. If you want driverless simplicity, you want electric or hydrogen. And only hydrogen provides the long-range, fast fueling to make the product worthwhile.

Robert Buxbaum March 12, 2018. My company, REB Research provides hydrogen purifiers and hydrogen generators.

Keeping your car batteries alive.

Lithium-battery cost and performance has improved so much that no one uses Ni-Cad or metal hydride batteries any more. These are the choice for tools, phones, and computers, while lead acid batteries are used for car starting and emergency lights. I thought I’d write about the care and trade-offs of these two remaining options.

As things currently stand, you can buy a 12 V, lead-acid car battery with 40 Amp-h capacity for about $95. This suggests a cost of about $200/ kWh. The price rises to $400/kWh if you only discharge half way (good practice). This is cheaper than the per-power cost of lithium batteries, about $500/ kWh or $1000/ kWh if you only discharge half-way (good practice), but people pick lithium because (1) it’s lighter, and (2) it’s generally longer lasting. Lithium generally lasts about 2000 half-discharge cycles vs 500 for lead-acid.

On the basis of cost per cycle, lead acid batteries would have been replaced completely except that they are more tolerant of cold and heat, and they easily output the 400-800 Amps needed to start a car. Lithium batteries have problems at these currents, especially when it’s hot or cold. Lithium batteries deteriorate fast in the heat too (over 40°C, 105°F), and you can not charge a lithium car battery at more than 3-4 Amps at temperatures below about 0°C, 32°F. At higher currents, a coat of lithium metal forms on the anode. This lithium can react with water: 2Li + H2O –> Li2O + H2, or it can form dendrites that puncture the cell separators leading to fire and explosion. If you charge a lead acid battery too fast some hydrogen can form, but that’s much less of a problem. If you are worried about hydrogen, we sell hydrogen getters and catalysts that remove it. Here’s a description of the mechanisms.

The best thing you can do to keep a lead-acid battery alive is to keep it near-fully charged. This can be done by taking long drives, by idling the car (warming it up), or by use of an external trickle charger. I recommend a trickle charger in the winter because it’s non-polluting. A lead-acid battery that’s kept at near full charge will give you enough charge for 3000 to 5000 starts. If you let the battery completely discharge, you get only 50 or so deep cycles or 1000 starts. But beware: full discharge can creep up on you. A new car battery will hold 40 Ampere-hours of current, or 65,000 Ampere-seconds if you half discharge. Starting the car will take 5 seconds of 600 Amps, using 3000 Amp-s or about 5% of the battery’s juice. The battery will recharge as you drive, but not that fast. You’ll have to drive for at least 500 seconds (8 minutes) to recharge from the energy used in starting. But in the winter it is common that your drive will be shorter, and that a lot of your alternator power will be sent to the defrosters, lights, and seat heaters. As a result, your lead-acid battery will not totally charge, even on a 10 minute drive. With every week of short trips, the battery will drain a little, and sooner or later, you’ll find your battery is dead. Beware and recharge, ideally before 50% discharge

A little chemistry will help explain why full discharging is bad for battery life (for a different version see Wikipedia). For the first half discharge of a lead-acid battery, the reaction Is:

Pb + 2PbO2 + 2H2SO4  –> PbSO4 + Pb2O2SO4 + 2H2O.

This reaction involves 2 electrons and has a -∆G° of >394 kJ, suggesting a reversible voltage more than 2.04 V per cell with voltage decreasing as H2SO4 is used up. Any discharge forms PbSO4 on the positive plate (the lead anode) and converts lead oxide on the cathode (the negative plate) to Pb2O2SO4. Discharging to more than 50% involves this reaction converting the Pb2O2SO4 on the cathode to PbSO4.

Pb + Pb2O2SO4 + 2H2SO4  –> 2PbSO4 + 2H2O.

This also involves two electrons, but -∆G < 394 kJ, and voltage is less than 2.04 V. Not only is the voltage less, the maximum current is less. As it happens Pb2O2SO4 is amorphous, adherent, and conductive, while PbSO4 is crystalline, not that adherent, and not-so conductive. Operating at more than 50% results in less voltage, increased internal resistance, decreased H2SO4 concentrations, and lead sulfate flaking off the electrode. Even letting a battery sit at low voltage contributes to PbSO4 flaking off. If the weather is cold enough, the low concentration H2SO4 freezes and the battery case cracks. My advice: Get out your battery charger and top up your battery. Don’t worry about overcharging; your battery charger will sense when the charge is complete. A lead-acid battery operated at near full charge, between 67 and 100% will provide 1500 cycles, about as many as lithium. 

Trickle charging my wife's car. Good for battery life. At 6 Amps, expect this to take 3-6 hours.

Trickle charging my wife’s car: good for battery life. At 6 Amps, expect a full charge to take 6 hours or more. You might want to recharge the battery in your emergency lights too. 

Lithium batteries are the choice for tools and electric vehicles, but the chemistry is different. For longest life with lithium batteries, they should not be charged fully. If you change fully they deteriorate and self-discharge, especially when warm (100°F, 40°C). If you operate at 20°C between 75% and 25% charge, a lithium-ion battery will last 2000 cycles; at 100% to 0%, expect only 200 cycles or so.

Tesla cars use lithium batteries of a special type, lithium cobalt. Such batteries have been known to explode, but and Tesla adds sophisticated electronics and cooling systems to prevent this. The Chevy Volt and Bolt use lithium batteries too, but they are less energy-dense. In either case, assuming $1000/kWh and a 2000 cycle life, the battery cost of an EV is about 50¢/kWh-cycle. Add to this the cost of electricity, 15¢/kWh including the over-potential needed to charge, and I find a total cost of operation of 65¢/kWh. EVs get about 3 miles per kWh, suggesting an energy cost of about 22¢/mile. By comparison, a 23 mpg car that uses gasoline at $2.80 / gal, the energy cost is 12¢/mile, about half that of the EVs. For now, I stick to gasoline for normal driving, and for long trips, suggest buses, trains, and flying.

Robert Buxbaum, January 4, 2018.

my electric cart of the future

Buxbaum and Sperka cart of future

Buxbaum and Sperka show off the (shopping) cart of future, Oak Park parade July 4, 2015.

A Roman chariot did quite well with only 1 horse-power, while the average US car requires 100 horses. Part of the problem is that our cars weigh more than a chariot and go faster, 80 mph vs of 25 mph. But most city applications don’t need all that weight nor all of that speed. 20-25 mph is fine for round-town errands, and should be particularly suited to use by young drivers and seniors.

To show what can be done with a light vehicle that only has to go 20 mph, I made this modified shopping cart, and fitted it with a small, 1 hp motor. I call it the cart-of the future and paraded around with it at our last 4th of July parade. It’s high off the ground for safety, reasonably wide for stability, and has the shopping cart cage and seat-belts for safety. There is also speed control. We went pretty slow in the parade, but here’s a link to a video of the cart zipping down the street at 17.5 mph.

In the 2 months since this picture was taken, I’ve modified the cart to have a chain drive and a rear-wheel differential — helpful for turning. My next modification, if I get to it, will be to switch to hydrogen power via a fuel cell. One of the main products we make is hydrogen generators, and I’m hoping to use the cart to advertise the advantages of hydrogen power.

Robert E. Buxbaum, August 28, 2015. I’m the one in the beige suit.

Hydrogen cars and buses are better than Tesla

Hydrogen fueled cars and buses are as clean to drive as battery vehicles and have better range and faster fueling times. Cost-wise, a hydrogen fuel tank is far cheaper and lighter than an equivalent battery and lasts far longer. Hydrogen is likely safer because the tanks do not carry their oxidant in them. And the price of hydrogen is relatively low, about that of gasoline on a per-mile basis: far lower than batteries when the cost of battery wear-out is included. Both Presidents Clinton and Bush preferred hydrogen over batteries, but the current administration favors batteries. Perhaps history will show them correct, but I think otherwise. Currently, there is not a hydrogen bus, car, or boat making runs at Disney’s Experimental Community of Tomorrow (EPCOT), nor is there an electric bus car or boat. I suspect it’s a mistake, at least convening the lack of a hydrogen vehicle. 

The best hydrogen vehicles on the road have more range than the best electric vehicle, and fuel faster. The hydrogen powered, Honda Clarity debuted in 2008. It has a 270 mile range and takes 3-5 minutes to fuel with hydrogen at 350 atm, 5150 psi. By contrast, the Tesla S-sedan that debuted in 2012 claims only a 208 mile range for its standard, 60kWh configuration (the EPA claims: 190 miles) and requires three hours to charge using their fastest charger, 20 kW.

What limits the range of battery vehicles is that the stacks are very heavy and expensive. Despite using modern lithium-ion technology, Tesla’s 60 kWh battery weighs 1050 lbs including internal cooling, and adds another 250 lbs to the car for extra structural support. The Clarity fuel system weighs a lot less. The hydrogen cylinders weigh 150 lb and require a fuel cell stack (30 lb) and a smaller lithium-ion battery for start-up (90 lb). The net effect is that the Clarity weighs 3582 lbs vs 4647 lbs for the Tesla S. This extra weight of the Tesla seems to hurt its mileage by about 10%. The Tesla gets about 3.3 mi/kWh or 0.19 mile/lb of battery versus 60 miles/kg of hydrogen for the Clarity suggesting  3.6 mi/kWh at typical efficiencies. 

High pressure hydrogen tanks are smaller than batteries and cheaper per unit range. The higher the pressure the smaller the tank. The current Clarity fuels with 350 atm, 5,150 psi hydrogen, and the next generation (shown below) will use higher pressure to save space. But even with 335 atm hydrogen (5000 psi) a Clarity could fuel a 270 mile range with four, 8″ diameter tanks (ID), 4′ long. I don’t know how Honda makes its hydrogen tanks, but suitable tanks might be made from 0.065″ Maranging (aged) stainless steel (UTS = 350,000 psi, density 8 g/cc), surrounded by 0.1″ of aramid fiber (UTS = 250,000 psi, density = 1.6 g/cc). With this construction, each tank would weigh 14.0 kg (30.5 lbs) empty, and hold 11,400 standard liters, 1.14 kg (2.5 lb) of hydrogen at pressure. These tanks could cost $1500 total; the 270 mile range is 40% more Than the Tesla S at about 1/10 the cost of current Tesla S batteries The current price of a replacement Tesla battery pack is $12,000, subsidized by DoE; without the subsidy, the likely price would be $40,000.

Next generation Honda fuel cell vehicle prototype at the 2014 Detroit Auto Show.

Next generation Honda fuel cell vehicle prototype at the 2014 Detroit Auto Show.

Currently hydrogen is more expensive than electricity per energy value, but my company has technology to make it cheaply and more cleanly than electricity. My company, REB Research makes hydrogen generators that produce ultra pure hydrogen by steam reforming wow alcohol in a membrane reactor. A standard generator, suitable to a small fueling station outputs 9.5 kg of hydrogen per day, consuming 69 gal of methanol-water. At 80¢/gal for methanol-water, and 12¢/kWh for electricity, the output hydrogen costs $2.50/kg. A car owner who drove 120,000 miles would spend $5,000 on hydrogen fuel. For that distance, a Tesla owner would spend only $4400 on electricity, but would have to spend another $12,000 to replace the battery. Tesla batteries have a 120,000 mile life, and the range decreases with age. 

For a bus or truck at EPCOT, the advantages of hydrogen grow fast. A typical bus is expected to travel much further than 120,000 miles, and is expected to operate for 18 hour shifts in stop-go operation getting perhaps 1/4 the miles/kWh of a sedan. The charge time and range advantages of hydrogen build up fast. it’s common to build a hydrogen bus with five 20 foot x 8″ tanks. Fueled at 5000 psi., such buses will have a range of 420 miles between fill-ups, and a total tank weight and cost of about 600 lbs and $4000 respectively. By comparison, the range for an electric bus is unlikely to exceed 300 miles, and even this will require a 6000 lb., 360 kWh lithium-ion battery that takes 4.5 hours to charge assuming an 80 kW charger (200 Amps at 400 V for example). That’s excessive compared to 10-20 minutes for fueling with hydrogen.

While my hydrogen generators are not cheap: for the one above, about $500,000 including the cost of a compressor, the cost of an 80 kW DC is similar if you include the cost to run a 200 Amp, 400 V power line. Tesla has shown there are a lot of people who value clean, futuristic transport if that comes with comfort and style. A hydrogen car can meet that handily, and can provide the extra comforts of longer range and faster refueling.

Robert E. Buxbaum, February 12, 2014 (Lincoln’s birthday). Here’s an essay on Lincoln’s Gettysburg address, on the safety of batteries, and on battery cost vs hydrogen. My company, REB Research makes hydrogen generators and purifiers; we also consult.

Hydrogen versus Battery Power

There are two major green energy choices that people are considering to power small-to-medium size, mobile applications like cars and next generation, drone airplanes: rechargeable, lithium-ion batteries and hydrogen /fuel cells. Neither choice is an energy source as such, but rather a clean energy carrier. That is, batteries and fuel cells are ways to store and concentrate energy from other sources, like solar or nuclear plants for use on the mobile platform.

Of these two, rechargeable batteries are the more familiar: they are used in computers, cell phones, automobiles, and the ill-fated, Boeing Dreamliner. Fuel cells are less familiar but not totally new: they are used to power most submarines and spy-planes, and find public use in the occasional, ‘educational’ toy. Fuel cells provided electricity for the last 30 years of space missions, and continue to power the international space station when the station is in the dark of night (about half the time). Batteries have low energy density (energy per mass or volume) but charging them is cheap and easy. Home electricity costs about 12¢/kWhr and is available in every home and shop. A cheap transformer and rectifier is all you needed to turn the alternating current electricity into DC to recharge a battery virtually anywhere. If not for the cost and weight of the batteries, the time to charge the battery (usually and hour or two), batteries would be the obvious option.

Two obvious problems with batteries are the low speed of charge and the annoyance of having to change the battery every 500 charges or so. If one runs an EV battery 3/4 of the way down and charges it every week, the battery will last 8 years. Further, battery charging takes 1-2 hours. These numbers are acceptable if you use the car only occasionally, but they get more annoying the more you use the car. By contrast, the tanks used to hold gasoline or hydrogen fill in a matter of minutes and last for decades or many thousands of fill-cycles.

Another problem with batteries is range. The weight-energy density of batteries is about 1/20 that of gasoline and about 1/10 that of hydrogen, and this affects range. While gasoline stores about 2.5 kWhr/kg including the weight of the gas tank, current Li-Ion batteries store far less than this, about 0.15 kWhr/kg. The energy density of hydrogen gas is nearly that of gasoline when the efficiency effect is included. A 100 kg of hydrogen tank at 10,000 psi will hold 8 kg of hydrogen, or enough to travel about 350 miles in a fuel-cell car. This is about as far as a gasoline car goes carrying 60 kg of tank + gasoline. This seems acceptable for long range and short-range travel, while the travel range with eVs is more limited, and will likely remain that way, see below.

The volumetric energy density of compressed hydrogen/ fuel cell systems is higher than for any battery scenario. And hydrogen tanks are far cheaper than batteries. From Battery University. http://batteryuniversity.com/learn/article/will_the_fuel_cell_have_a_second_life

The volumetric energy density of compressed hydrogen/ fuel cell systems is higher than for any battery scenario. And hydrogen tanks are far cheaper than batteries. From Battery University. http://batteryuniversity.com/learn/article/will_the_fuel_cell_have_a_second_life

Cost is perhaps the least understood problem with batteries. While electricity is cheap (cheaper than gasoline) battery power is expensive because of the high cost and limited life of batteries. Lithium-Ion batteries cost about $2000/kWhr, and give an effective 500 charge/discharge cycles; their physical life can be extended by not fully charging them, but it’s the same 500 cycles. The effective cost of the battery is thus $4/kWhr (The battery university site calculates $24/kWhr, but that seems overly pessimistic). Combined with the cost of electricity, and the losses in charging, the net cost of Li-Ion battery power is about $4.18/kWhr, several times the price of gasoline, even including the low efficiency of gasoline engines.

Hydrogen prices are much lower than battery prices, and nearly as low as gasoline, when you add in the effect of the high efficiency fuel cell engine. Hydrogen can be made on-site and compressed to 10,000 psi for less cost than gasoline, and certainly less cost than battery power. If one makes hydrogen by electrolysis of water, the cost is approximately 24¢/kWhr including the cost of the electrolysis unit.While the hydrogen tank is more expensive than a gasoline tank, it is much cheaper than a battery because the technology is simpler. Fuel cells are expensive though, and only about 50% efficient. As a result, the as-used cost of electrolysis hydrogen in a fuel cell car is about 48¢/kWhr. That’s far cheaper than battery power, but still not cheap enough to encourage the sale of FC vehicles with the current technology.

My company, REB Research provides another option for hydrogen generation: The use of a membrane reactor to make it from cheap, easy to transport liquids like methanol. Our technology can be used to make hydrogen either at the station or on-board the car. The cost of hydrogen made this way is far cheaper than from electrolysis because most of the energy comes from the methanol, and this energy is cheaper than electricity.

In our membrane reactors methanol-water (65-75% Methanol), is compressed to 350 psi, heated to 350°C, and reacted to produce hydrogen that is purified as it is made. CH3OH + H2O –> 3H2 + CO2, with the hydrogen extracted through a membrane within the reactor.

The hydrogen can be compressed to 10,000 psi and stored in a tank on board an automobile or airplane, or one can choose to run this process on-board the vehicle and generate it from liquid fuel as-needed. On-board generation provides a saving of weight, cost, and safety since you can carry methanol-water easily in a cheap tank at low pressure. The energy density of methanol-water is about 1/2 that of gasoline, but the fuel cell is about twice as efficient as a gasoline engine making the overall volumetric energy density about the same. Not including the fuel cell, the cost of energy made this way is somewhat lower than the cost of gasoline, about 25¢/kWhr; since methanol is cheaper than gasoline on a per-energy basis. Methanol is made from natural gas, coal, or trees — non-imported, low cost sources. And, best yet, trees are renewable.

Why the Boeing Dreamliner’s batteries burst into flames

Boeing’s Dreamliner is currently grounded due to two of their Li-Ion batteries having burst into flames, one in flight, and another on the ground. Two accidents of the same type in a small fleet is no little matter as an airplane fire can be deadly on the ground or at 50,000 feet.

The fires are particularly bad on the Dreamliner because these lithium batteries control virtually everything that goes on aboard the plane. Even without a fire, when they go out so does virtually every control and sensor. So why did they burn and what has Boeing done to take care of it? The simple reason for the fires is that management chose to use Li-Cobalt oxide batteries, the same Li-battery design that every laptop computer maker had already rejected ten years earlier when laptops using them started busting into flames. This is the battery design that caused Dell and HP to recall every computer with it. Boeing decided that they should use a massive version to control everything on their flagship airplane because it has the highest energy density see graphic below. They figured that operational management would insure safety even without the need to install any cooling or sufficient shielding.

All lithium batteries have a negative electrode (anode) that is mostly lithium. The usual chemistry is lithium metal in a graphite matrix. Lithium metal is light and readily gives off electrons; the graphite makes is somewhat less reactive. The positive electrode (cathode) is typically an oxide of some sort, and here there are options. Most current cell-phone and laptop batteries use some version of manganese nickel oxide as the anode. Lithium atoms in the anode give off electrons, become lithium ions and then travel across to the oxide making a mixed ion oxide that absorbs the electron. The process provides about 4 volts of energy differential per electron transferred. With cobalt oxide, the cathode reaction is more or less CoO2 + Li+ e– —> LiCoO2. Sorry to say this chemistry is very unstable; the oxide itself is unstable, more unstable than MnNi or iron oxide, especially when it is fully charged, and especially when it is warm (40 degrees or warmer) 2CoO2 –> Co2O+1/2O2. Boeing’s safety idea was to control the charge rate in a way that overheating was not supposed to occur.

Despite the controls, it didn’t work for the two Boeing batteries that burst into flames. Perhaps it would have helped to add cooling to reduce the temperature — that’s what’s done in lap-tops and plug-in automobiles — but even with cooling the batteries might have self-destructed due to local heating effects. These batteries were massive, and there is plenty of room for one spot to get hotter than the rest; this seems to have happened in both fires, either as a cause or result. Once the cobalt oxide gets hot and oxygen is released a lithium-oxygen fire can spread to the whole battery, even if the majority is held at a low temperature. If local heating were the cause, no amount of external cooling would have helped.


Something that would have helped was a polymer interlayer separator to keep the unstable cobalt oxide from fueling the fire; there was none. Another option is to use a more-stable cathode like iron phosphate or lithium manganese nickel. As shown in the graphic above, these stable oxides do not have the high power density of Li-cobalt oxide. When the unstable cobalt oxide decomposed there was oxygen, lithium, and heat in one space and none of the fire extinguishers on the planes could put out the fires.

The solution that Boeing has proposed and that Washington is reviewing is to leave the batteries unchanged, but to shield them in a massive titanium shield with the vapors formed on burning vented outside the airplane. The claim is that this shield will protect the passengers from the fire, if not from the loss of electricity. This does not appear to be the best solution. Airbus had planned to use the same batteries on their newest planes, but has now gone retro and plans to use Ni-Cad batteries. I don’t think that’s the best solution either. Better options, I think, are nickel metal hydride or the very stable Lithium Iron Phosphate batteries that Segway uses. Better yet would be to use fuel cells, an option that appears to be better than even the best batteries. Fuel cells are what the navy uses on submarines and what NASA uses in space. They are both more energy dense and safer than batteries. As a disclaimer, REB Research makes hydrogen generators and purifiers that are used with fuel-cell power.

More on the chemistry of Boeing’s batteries and their problems can be found on Wikipedia. You can also read an interview with the head of Tesla motors regarding his suggestions and offer of help.