Penn State Engineers Develop EV Battery Capable of Heating Itself in Winter

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【Summary】For automakers that are planning to sell electric vehicles in cold climates, this technology could revolutionize the industry.

Original Vineeth Joel Patel    Aug 13, 2018 2:30 PM PT
Penn State Engineers Develop EV Battery Capable of Heating Itself in Winter

With rising gas prices and large countries moving towards stricter fuel economy and emissions regulations, automakers and technology companies are looking to replace gasoline-powered machines with battery-powered vehicles. While companies are making EVs better thanks to larger battery packs with more range and more powerful electric motors, the issue of how the vehicles operate in cold climates is still up for debate. 

How Cold Climates Affect EV Batteries

While it's misleading to state that electric vehicles don't operate properly in frigid climates, battery-powered vehicles do lose some of their potency. As a report by the Union of Concerned Scientists found back in 2016, the Tesla Model S 70D loss approximately 19 percent of its range in cold weather. That weather specifically refers to zero degrees Fahrenheit with the heater on. 

Owners were reporting that the situation was a lot worse, claiming that Tesla's electric sedan lost somewhere around 50 percent in range in those kind of conditions. 

Since automakers have to develop and manufacture cars for an entire country – or even globally – they can't focus on developing technology that's specifically built to improve range in cold climates. Engineers at Penn State took the matter into their own hands and have developed a battery that can heat itself in cold temps. In addition to being able to heat itself, the battery can also be rapidly charged at temperature as low as minus 45 degrees Fahrenheit. 

Regular batteries usually have two terminals – a negative and a positive terminal. The engineers created a third terminal by placing a thin piece of nickel foil that's attached to the negative terminal that has a protruding piece that is used to create an additional terminal. A temperature sensor was placed onto the battery that detects when it's below room temperature and sends electronics through the piece of nickel foil to heat up the battery. 

How Does Penn State's High-Tech Battery Work?

Once the battery is up to temperature, the electric current flows directly into the battery to rapidly charge it. "One unique feature of our cell is that it will do the heating and then switch to charging automatically," said Chao-Yang Wang, director of Penn State's Electrochemical Engine Center. "Also, the stations already out there do not have to be changed. Control off heating and charging is within the battery, not the chargers." 

Penn State's engineers also found a way to make their prototype's battery pack hold up well over time. The researchers reported that after 4,500 cycles of 15-minute charging in 32-degree Fahrenheit weather, the battery only lost 20 percent of its capacity. This, theoretically, could provide for roughly 280,000 miles of driving and a lifespan of 12.5 years. Apparently, a conventional battery under the same conditions lost 20 percent of its capacity after just 50 charging cycles. 

"This ubiquitous fast-charging method will also allow manufacturers to use smaller batteries that are lighter and also safer in a vehicle," said Wang. 

While automakers and tech companies are looking to develop and manufacturer quick-chargers, Penn State's engineers have revealed that a better solution may be found from within – the battery pack itself. Creating battery packs that can handle frigid temperatures better and can last longer will result in better EVs immediately. Building fast chargers and setting up a proper network could take years.  

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