The search to make cheaper batteries for electric vehicles
Inside a chemistry lab on Virginia Tech’s campus, associate professor Feng Lin holds up a tin can with thousands of small lithium rechargeable batteries.
“What’s really limiting right now for most consumers [is] the cost,” Lin said. Although these small batteries would not work to power a vehicle, researchers are using them to study how to create batteries for electric cars.
Each battery has been tested, to see how well it charges and performs.
Researchers inside this lab also make batteries; they’re trying to find materials that can be used to make electric batteries. “We think this technology is going to have a huge impact,” Lin said.
The U.S. Department of Energy just awarded Lin’s team at a grant of nearly $3 million to develop a prototype battery for electric cars. The goal is to produce batteries without nickel or cobalt – which are both expensive, scarce, and environmentally problematic to mine. Creating electric vehicles with more affordable materials would drastically reduce the price of cars.
The team is also hoping to make batteries that can charge more quickly. “If we can successfully develop this technology, we will allow electric vehicles to charge in a few minutes instead of 30 minutes or one hour in today’s world,” Lin said.
In another room is a giant clear, plastic box with black rubber arms jutting out. It’s called a glove box, used to make and disassemble batteries.
One of the researchers working with the glove box is 23-year-old undergraduate assistant Callum Connor. “Hopefully I can use my work to contribute to a battery that will be in my future car,” Connor said.
Connor has been interested in cars since he was a little kid. “I saw in high school that electric vehicles were pretty much the future, so I knew once I got into college, that this was a path I wanted to pursue.”
Virginia Tech will partner on the battery project with a start-up company, called Fermi Energy, based at the Corporate Research Center in Blacksburg. Fermi is co-founded by Lin; the other co-founder is Zhengrui Xu, who is also a post-doctoral researcher in his lab at Virginia Tech.
“The research is very exciting and there’s a lot of potential to commercialize them and make the batteries better and at a lower cost,” Xu said.
Lin’s research is also affiliated with Virginia Tech’s Department of Materials Science and Engineering, and Macromolecules Innovation Institute.
As part of the grant from the Department of Energy, Lin said they hope to have a prototype of a battery for electric vehicles developed by summer of 2026.