This is my hybrid bike charging at a 7-11 while I ate some lunch. I was hauling a heavy load and had been tormenting another cyclist who had been trying to close a 10-foot gap with me for a couple of miles on Sand Point Way. I took my batteries to their limit of 4.6 amp-hours, so I had to pull out of the dogfight to refuel with 14 miles on the odometer.

bike fueling

Yet-Ming Chiang (formerly a researcher at MIT) combined lithium ion technology with nanocarbon particles to invent the batteries that power my bike, saw, and drill. These batteries solved just enough technical problems to make the hybrid electric bicycle fully feasible, and will probably do so for the first plug-in hybrid cars.

Yi Cui (a researcher at Stanford) heads a team that has come up with an improvement on the A123 battery by combining lithium ion technology with silicon nanowires.

“It’s not a small improvement,” Cui said. “It’s a revolutionary development [producing 10 times the amount of electricity of existing lithium-ion batteries].”

It won’t be revolutionary unless it becomes a product that successfully competes in the marketplace, as A123 battery technology is. The A123 batteries are light, transmit high currents (charge or discharge), and are good for thousands of cycles. But they don’t store much more energy per unit volume than their competitors (amp-hours).

Just imagine a battery that could actually hold ten times the energy of the A123! For starters, all things being equal, it would theoretically reduce the cost of one of my battery packs from $150 to $15, which is a full order of magnitude. This is when the revolution would really begin. Batteries like this, if they can be brought to commercial viability, would finally end the reign of the internal combustion engine. Batteries with this kind of performance would also greatly reduce the cost of off-grid photovoltaic systems and probably the cost of renewable (but intermittent) power in general.

My first hybrid bike consumed six lead-acid batteries in the span of less than two years. I learned firsthand why battery technology has been the missing link all of these years. They were heavy, susceptible to discharge damage, performed poorly in cold temperatures, took hours to recharge, and lost power as they discharged (volts x amps). The A123 batteries, although expensive to purchase, have not only overcome all of those problems, but also paid for themselves long ago with savings in gasoline. They’re still going strong. Hopefully this latest battery technology will pan out like the A123 did. I’ll be keeping an eye on it.