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Samsung working on battery breakthrough for powering cars

Lithium-air promises twice the capacity of today's Li-ion tech

Samsung's central research lab has developed a lithium-air battery prototype that would nearly double the range of electric vehicles.

SEOUL -- Samsung Electronics is developing technology that could give electric-vehicle batteries almost double the capacity of today's mainstream lithium-ion power packs, looking to get a step ahead of Toyota Motor's competing tech.

The South Korean icon is working on a breakthrough in lithium-air cells, regarded in the industry as the holy grail. Samsung's central research lab recently produced a lithium-air battery with a capacity of 520 watt-hours per kilogram.

Nissan Motor's new Leaf can run 400km on a full charge. Samsung's new battery would theoretically let a similar electric vehicle go more than 700km.

Samsung achieved this impressive capacity by cutting the width of the separator by more than 90% to 20 microns, making it possible to cram in more cells.

But the technology is not nearly ready for market. Recharging is one challenge. Performance takes a dive after 20 charge-discharge cycles -- a serious problem for a battery that will need recharging thousands of times. Furthermore, the battery takes several hours to fully charge.

Samsung apparently aims to commercialize the power pack by 2030. It will test various materials and shapes for the cathode and anode in hopes of improving performance.

Two generations of tech

The electric vehicles that have taken off worldwide largely get power from lithium-ion batteries, which can store far more electricity than the nickel-metal hydride cells Toyota has long used in its hybrids. Though Japanese automakers led the way in lithium-ion technology, it has since spread throughout Asia, with PanasonicSamsung SDI, South Korea's LG Chem and Chinese players all vying for market share.

Solid-state batteries are widely seen as the next step. Conventional lithium-ion batteries use a liquid electrolyte to carry ions between electrodes. Solid-state cells replace this with a solid electrolyte less prone to deterioration, extending battery life as well as reducing the risk of leaks and fires. The technology is also expected to cut charging times while increasing capacity.

Toyota has 200 engineers developing solid-state batteries, targeting commercialization by the mid-2020s. Calling the technology a potential future game changer, Executive Vice President Didier Leroy said that the company has already created a prototype and that preparing for mass production will be the next phase.

Samsung SDI is working in solid-state as well. German autoparts maker Robert Bosch has acquired an American startup in the field, while Apple has been recruiting engineers. Osaka Prefecture University chemistry professor Masahiro Tatsumisago anticipates solid-state batteries reaching the market around 2023.

Lithium-air technology is seen as the successor to that generation of batteries. A lithium-air cell takes in oxygen from the air, which reacts with lithium to generate electricity. This theoretically allows for a higher capacity, while the smaller amount of materials needed should reduce both weight and cost. Japan's National Institute for Materials Science, Tohoku University and Toyota are also researching the technology.

An industry in transition

Until about half a year ago, conventional combustion engines had been expected to predominate for some time. But the U.K., France and China have in recent months discussed an eventual end to sales of gasoline-fueled vehicles. The share of battery-powered autos on the road is set to grow gradually but steadily.

This will mean a battery market boom that benefits such related industries as materials suppliers. Japanese research company Fuji Keizai sees the global market for batteries used in electric cars and other environmentally friendly vehicles ballooning from 1.4 trillion yen ($12.2 billion) last year to 6.6 trillion yen in 2025.

The prospect of regulatory changes has prompted the likes of Volkswagen, General Motors and Nissan to come out with electric-vehicle strategies. The rapid shift is not only promoting innovation in lithium-ion batteries -- an area where improvement has been slow -- but also bringing faster progress toward the next technological step.

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