Can new high-range aluminium-air cell topple lithium-ion battery?

Trevor Jackson battery electric car range metal aluminium air cell lithium
Trevor Jackson’s aluminium-air battery can power an electric vehicle for 2,400km without charge.

Electric vehicles have just become even more appealing after UK engineer Trevor Jackson invented a new battery made from recycled aluminium and a non-toxic electrolyte, which he claims can power an EV for 1,500 miles (2,400km) without charge.

Also a former British Royal Navy officer, Mr Jackson began experimenting with batteries in his garage workshop 20 years ago resulting in the invention of his aluminium-air battery.

Unlike the current lithium-ion battery, Mr Jackson’s aluminium-air battery is replaced once it has discharged with the entire replacement process estimated to take 90 seconds.

The spent aluminium battery is then recycled, with the battery anticipated to be swapped out about five times a year.

Essex-based engineering firm Austin Electric saw the battery’s potential and secured a multi-million-dollar deal with Mr Jackson.

Austin chief executive officer Danny Corcoran said the technology was a “game-changer” and will help trigger the next industrial revolution.

He added the technology had “enormous” advantages over traditional EV batteries which are mostly made with a lithium formula.

Austin, which owns the rights to the Austin Motor Company brand, now plans to install the aluminium-air batteries in thousands of EVs from next year.

The engineering company will also convert internal combustion engine cars into hybrids by fitting the aluminium batteries and motors to drive the rear wheels.

Mr Jackson anticipates the conversion will cost consumers about £3,500 (A$6,583).

The technology will also be used to power Tuk Tuks, which are very common in Asian countries including Thailand. It will also be incorporated in electric bikes.

Austin Electric expects its aluminium-air hybrid cars will be available next year.

In addition to cars, tuk tuks, and motorised bikes, Mr Jackson claims his batteries could work in planes used for short haul passenger and cargo flights as well as trucks and other heavy machinery.

Progressing the technology

Mr Jackson began researching the technology in 2001, which involved dipping aluminium into an electrolyte chemical solution, which sparks a reaction and ultimately produces electricity.

His breakthrough came when he developed his own non-toxic electrolyte, which he actually drank when presenting the battery and its technology to investors.

Mr Jackson’s proprietary electrolyte formula works with low purity aluminium including recycled soft drink and beer cans.

Despite facing strong opposition from the automobile industry over the last decade, Mr Jackson persevered.

The UK Trade and Investment, now known as the Department for International Trade, evaluated Mr Jackson’s battery in 2017.

The government agency found the battery was “very attractive” and based on “well established” technology.

Pros and cons

One of the aluminium-air battery’s main drawbacks for potential consumers is the inability to recharge the battery – so essentially, once it is dead, it is dead.

There is also the automobile industry’s ongoing resistance and the fact that billions have been spent on the lithium-ion battery and its value chain.

Several Tesla Motors Club forum users have said the inability to recharge the battery made it impractical and no different to having to keep purchasing fuel.

Another user also questioned how much energy was required to recycle a spent battery so it can be reused.

However, official comparisons against lithium-ion batteries have shown Mr Jackson’s battery generates nine time more energy, takes up less space and is much lighter.

Mr Jackson’s idea is that the battery can easily be swapped at a local supermarket, with the replacement process estimated to take about 90 seconds.

Discussions are already underway with two UK supermarket chains regarding stocking the battery.

Mr Jackson’s battery is also less expensive to manufacture, easier to recycle, with the benefits of being non-toxic and not requiring recharging infrastructure.

“I know we are battling ferocious vested interests, but the technological and environmental advantages of aluminium-air are overwhelming – and Britain has a chance to become the world leader in it,” Mr Jackson said.

Tesla not to be outdone

With billions invested throughout the entire lithium-ion battery value chain, it will be a tough job to topple the lithium-ion battery formula currently used in EVs.

Tesla’s chief executive officer Elon Musk is notorious for his bold and cocky statements, but he is also known for delivering on them.

Back in 2017, Mr Musk told the South Australian Government that he would deploy a 100-megawatt and 129-megawatt hour lithium-ion battery storage system for the government within 100 days or it would be free.

He delivered, with the system switched on within 63 days of the contract’s execution.

Another promise Mr Musk’s has made is to deliver a lithium battery that can power Tesla’s EVs for more than 1 million miles (1.6Mkm) over the car’s lifespan.

This isn’t an empty promise either with researchers from Canada’s Dalhousie University publishing a report late last month in the Journal of the Electrochemical Society on their recent work.

After up to three years of different testing methods on pouch cell batteries using a tweaked lithium, nickel, manganese, cobalt chemistry, the researchers concluded it was feasible to power an EV over the much larger 1-million-mile range using cells of this type.

Researchers also concluded grid energy storage should get at least two decades of power using this type of battery.

Not content to just make inroads in batteries and cars, Mr Musk told investors last week that Tesla was now rolling out solar roofs across the US.

The new roofs will replace tradition material and be made purely of glass solar tiles, which will generate electricity for homes.

Tesla plans to begin installing its new solar roofs next month.