Emile Greenhalgh’s laboratory at Imperial College London researchers have modified a model of a hybrid vehicle to increase the amount of electrical energy it can store by adding body components that double as capacitors, devices that hold an electrical charge until they are tapped. On the same time designers of full-scale electric vehicles are working on extending the battery reserves instead of today’s battery that gives only enough power for about 100 miles of driving.
Engineers are developing car frames and bodies to help decrease the weight and increase driving distances. The new frames are made of carbon fiber-reinforced composites, plastic materials that can be 50 percent lighter than steel but provide superior strength and rigidity. Although used in a handful of exotic sports cars, carbon composites remain too costly for mass-market cars.
One potential solution is to build autos with carbon composites that can also serve as batteries. The dual-function materials could make E.V.’s and hybrid vehicles lighter as they simultaneously provide extra electricity. To enable the composite materials to store electricity, the resin that binds the carbon fibers is laced with lithium ions; the fibers serve as conductive electrodes for this type of charge-holding capacitor.
It is different from a battery, which produces electricity from a chemical reaction. Another research group, at the Swedish Institute of Composites, is working on a structural battery.