Gasoline beat out electricity as the prime power source for cars in the early 1900s. The problem was the battery. Electric cars are trying to make a comeback in the early 2000s. The problem is the battery.

Gasoline beat out electricity as the prime power source for cars in the early 1900s. The problem was the battery. Electric cars are trying to make a comeback in the early 2000s. The problem is the battery.

Nissan_LeafSure, batteries have gotten a lot better. Electric cars are here–but they are very expensive, like the Tesla Roadster, and they have a limited driving range, like the coming Nissan ( NSANY – news – people ) Leaf, which aims to last 100 miles before recharge. If batteries’ improvements are compared with, say, the improvement in transistors, it looks like batteries have gone nowhere, fast.

One excuse: “In energy storage, we have a much bigger problem,” says Claus Daniel, a research scientist and project director in the materials science and technology division at Oak Ridge National Laboratory. “Our first [automotive] batteries developed in the 1870s were pretty good.”

Another problem is that even with huge advantages in the understanding of the materials, chemistry and physics that govern the storage and production of electricity in a cell, it is very hard to tell what is going on inside a battery when it is working. Batteries are inscrutable contraptions; manufacturers layer slurries of solvents, binders and active electrode materials under tightly controlled environments. Then the cell is quickly wrapped up–much of it reacts immediately with oxygen–never to be opened again.

But Daniel and Oak Ridge have some nifty tools not usually applied to things like batteries that will allow them to see what is going on inside a battery like never before. They will use these tools over the next year and a half as part of a recently announced advanced battery research program. The $6.2 million program is a collaboration between the Department of Energy (which runs Oak Ridge) and four U.S.-based battery companies, A123 Systems, Dow Kokam (a joint venture between Dow Chemical ( DOW – news – people ) and Townsend Kokam LLC), Porous Power Technologies and Planar Energy.

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Source: Forbes
Photo: Nissan