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Home > Nanotechnology Columns > Earl Boysen > Nanotechnology on the Road

Earl Boysen
Understanding Nanotechnology

The astronomical price of gas this summer inspired me to look at how nanotechnology might help reduce the cost of driving. I identified two rays of hope: better batteries for cars powered by electricity and hydrogen fuel cells.

June 6th, 2007

Nanotechnology on the Road

The astronomical price of gas this summer inspired me to look at how nanotechnology might help reduce the cost of driving. I identified two rays of hope: better batteries for cars powered by electricity and hydrogen fuel cells.


Electric and hybrid cars are becoming more popular given the cost of a tank of gas. Work by nanotech companies such as Altair Nanotechnologies and A123Systems to improve the performance of lithium ion batteries may make electric cars even more appealing. Lithium ion batteries have a higher power density than the nickel metal hydride batteries currently used in electric and hybrid cars. Using lithium ion batteries you can store the same amount of power in a lighter weight, smaller, package. Also lithium ion manufacturers project that their batteries will last about ten years, about four years longer than nickel metal hydride batteries.

However previous generations of lithium ion batteries were slower to charge and had safety issues, much publicized when batteries in laptop computers caught fire. Nanotechnology companies have changed the material used in the lithium ion battery electrodes. Each has used its own proprietary material composition both to reduce the risk of the battery catching fire and to incorporate the ability of a nanostructured surface to provide faster charge transfer between the chemicals in the battery and the electrodes.

It appears that the efforts of these companies will result in improved hybrid and electric cars, with some becoming available in 2008. Batteries from Altair are being used in electric vehicles made by Phoenix Motorcars. Currently these are only being sold for use in corporate fleets but should be available to consumers in 2008. Batteries from A123Systems, as well as other lithium ion battery manufacturers, are being evaluated by GM for use in Saturn hybrids.

Once these nano-enhanced lithium ion batteries pass evaluations by GM and other car manufacturers, electric or hybrid cars can be produced that will have higher performance than cars using nickel metal hydride batteries or the same performance while using smaller/lighter batteries.

Of course for hybrid or electric cars that use nano-enhanced lithium ion batteries to gain a foothold the batteries will also have to come down in price and be manufactured in large numbers. It will be interesting to see how battery manufacturers manage the manufacturing ramp up if the demand for these batteries increases both for electronic devices, such as laptop computers, and cars.

To learn more about batteries visit my Nanotechnology in Batteries page at


You may have heard talk about hydrogen fuel cells powered cars replacing gasoline powered cars, but don't hold your breath. The major obstacles to widespread use of hydrogen fuel cell powered cars in the next few years are the lack of a network of hydrogen fuel stations and the need for lightweight, safe hydrogen fuel tanks.

Researchers are developing hydrogen fuel tanks based upon absorption of hydrogen in solid materials (such as the metal hydride powder that a company named EDC Ovonics is using), carbon or other materials, that are sufficiently safe, lightweight, fast to refuel, and inexpensive to meet the requirements of mass market cars.

Widespread usage of cars powered by hydrogen fuel cells won't happen until refueling stations become as plentiful as your neighborhood gas station. Currently there are only a few hundred hydrogen fueling stations around the world, many intended to be used by a few demonstration vehicles within eco-minded transit bus systems or part of a commercial or utility fleet. Even California only has 24 hydrogen refueling stations at this time.

One of the basic challenges in establishing these stations is deciding how to refill the hydrogen tank in a car. A 6000 psi hydrogen supply is used to fill the high pressure gas cylinders used on many demonstration vehicles. On the other hand, a 1500 psi hydrogen supply is used to fill the cylinders made by EDC Ovonics; that store hydrogen in a solid. The design of hydrogen tanks needs to be far enough along to standardize the refueling conditions before a network of fueling stations can be built.

The California Fuel Cell Partnership, a coalition between industry and government is planning to establish a standard fuel delivery method over the next 5 years before they can begin to build a network of hydrogen fuel stations.

These hurdles mean that hydrogen fuel cell powered cars won't be your way around high gas prices next summer. In fact, the Department of Energy's Hydrogen Program is estimating the start of mass market usage of hydrogen fuel cell cars around 2020.

To learn more about fuel cells visit my Nanotechnology and Fuel Cells page at

Earl Boysen

Copyright Hawk's Perch Technical Writing, LLC 2007

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