Electric Car Batteries: How They Actually Work

Electric cars aren't exactly a new innovation in the evolution of motor vehicles. If anything, they're actually making a comeback, having been on the streets since the 19th century, and for a time rivaled the popularity of their internal combustion counterparts. Environmental concerns have since put electric cars back onto the radar in a big way, but what makes them more attractive today has also been a big reason for their initial downfall.

The culprit? Look no further than the very battery that is the essence of the electric car. Shortly after Iowa-based inventor William Morrison built the first electric car in 1891, these vehicles caught the eye of consumers because the push-button technology of the time conveniently activated the battery to turn the engine over. This made them easier to start than gas-powered engines, which at the time required a hand crank, strong arms and a bit of patience.

But the batteries in those cars were larger and more cumbersome than what was in internal-combustion vehicles, which had a tank to store its petroleum fuel. They also didn't have the power to go for long distances. That shortcoming, not to mention the massive rollout of Henry Ford's Model T cars in 1908 and the development of the conventional ignition system four years later, shifted the market towards internal-combustion engines in a trend that's lasted more than a century.



While today's electric cars benefit from the hype surrounding green technology and contain some innovative computerized features, one aspect hampering their allure and development is still the battery. The norm for original electric cars was a lead-acid battery that's still quite common in most cars today, regardless of how they're powered.

Back then, they worked much the same way they do now, with a negatively-charged lead plate and a positively-charged lead-dioxide plate, when mixed with a combination of water and sulphuric acid, create a chemical charge to start the engine. In electric cars, that's all you need to hit the road, while gas-powered equivalents rely on an alternator to keep the car's electrical system running.

Today, most electric vehicles have become more efficient with nickel and lithium-based batteries, which are considerably lighter than the lead-based power sources, according to Driving. But still, they're not up to par when it comes to the distance factor, and while a larger and heavier battery can help solve that problem, the extra weight of these replacements requires even more power, which compromises how far they can go.

You're most likely to find nickel-type (or more precisely nickel-metal hydride) batteries in hybrids, which are cheaper although less energy-rich than lithium counterparts. Powered by a reaction created by electrodes from a combination of hydrogen and nickel alloy, they can be charged through a process called regenerative braking, involving putting your foot on the brake pedal to slow the car down, which transfer kinetic energy otherwise required for acceleration into the battery for storage.

Via Autocar

Lithium batteries can also be found in hybrids, but are more popular in exclusively electric-powered vehicles. In this case, they power a car via a combination of electrodes composed of graphite and other metal alloys as well as lithium ion electrolytes. The result is more energy being used, as well as twice the energy-storage capacity than what's provided by nickel batteries, but the sensitive circuitry makes them practical in extremely hot or cold climates.

But like internal combustion engines, green car batteries also have inherent environmental concerns. Both nickel and lithium products need to be extracted from the earth and the mining process isn't exactly friendly to the landscape. Then there's the waste management issue as both types of batteries have their own sets of recycling issues. And finally, there's the matter of economics as electric vehicles and hybrids are still relatively expensive to their gassier competition.

Still, if those additional problems can be solved, it may only be a matter of time before the electric car's comeback is complete, perhaps even eclipsing their gas-guzzling counterparts.


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