The Future of the NiMH Battery

Resource guru Jack Lifton looks at the prospects for this respected battery chemistry and the rare earths that make it feasible.

Published: 24-Jan-2009

The power train technology in the Toyota Prius is the benchmark for the twenty-first century’s agenda to find an alternative energy system for passenger carrying vehicles. The battery powered electric motor driven car, the external combustion engine (steam driven) car, and the internal combustion (diesel or gasoline engine fueled by liquid or gaseous hydrocarbons) driven car were all invented in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and the contest to determine which of these power trains would predominate to be mass produced in the twentieth century was won in stages by the internal combustion engine using primarily gasoline as a fuel. The widespread availability of gasoline and kerosene by 1910 and the lack of an extensive power grid inside or outside all but the most important cities (and then only in Western Europe or the eastern and Midwestern U.S.) meant that you could not refuel (i.e., recharge) a battery driven car economically or easily other than in the biggest cities. Gasoline and kerosene could be transported from their production sites, by contrast, to wherever they were needed either by rail or by the new motor powered freight vehicles, known as delivery trucks, the range of which, since they could carry enormous quantities of fuel, was essentially limitless.

Today after a century of development and mass production the hydrocarbon fueled internal combustion engine powered motorcar is a mature technology. Fear of toxic emissions locally, climate changing emissions globally, and a peak in hydrocarbon-fuel-production capacity has rekindled interest in alternate power trains for passenger carrying motor vehicles. This interest has now focused on the electrification of vehicle power trains. Extensive research and development of storage batteries has been carried out since 1975, and this has resulted in much improved lead-acid batteries and the development of a number of new technologies capable of mass production including nickel cadmium batteries, lithium-ion batteries, and nickel metal hydride batteries all of which have been put into use in small power trains, such as for portable tools, in one form or another since 1975.

For automotive use, the key issues are capacity, safety, cost, efficiency, reliability, and longevity. All of the hype has focused on theoretical efficiency whereas in the real world the primary issue has been capacity and cost followed by safety, reliability and longevity, in that order. So far, the hands-down winner among the new battery technologies, as of 2009, is the nickel metal hydride battery based on the hydrogen absorption capacity of the rare earth metal lanthanum alloyed with nickel and cobalt.

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