Remember the Lamborghini Terzo Millennio concept, launched in November 2017? This wild design study showed Lamborghini‘s impression of what a fully electric supercar of the future might look like. The design was launched at the same time the company publicized its research partnerships with the chemistry and mechanical engineering departments at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Now the chem department program has paid off in a patent.
An electric car simply cannot be a true Lamborghini if it’s burdened with hundreds of pounds of batteries that make it weigh more than today’s raging bulls. A great way to reduce an electric car’s weight would be to use supercapacitors instead of chemical batteries. Supercaps are spectacularly efficient at storing power, but they’re lousy at storing energy. That means no matter how hard your electric supercar regeneratively brakes going into a turn and how fast it zooms back out of it, an appropriately sized supercapacitor can accept and release this power without any risk of overheating. Bonus fact: They can do this racy charge/discharge dance millions of times without degrading.
So Lamborghini and MIT set a research goal of tripling the energy storage capacity of these supercapacitors within four years. After just two years, the team devised a material that doubles capacity. They’re still working toward that additional incremental improvement, but the research to date was deemed significant enough to warrant a patent application in the names of the Lamborghini and MIT engineers responsible. The patent covers the chemical and geometric properties of the powdered material inside the supercapacitors.
This announcement marks a significant milestone in the research phase of the technology, but its development phase has yet to start. This will include determining the glue or paste that will affix the powder to its metallic electrode strip, a manufacturing technique to roll or fold it into a cylindrical or pouch form factor, and then mechanical and life-cycle testing.
Today’s supercapacitors typically use porous activated carbon, which includes zillions of nano-sized pockets for the electric ions to affix themselves to. The new powder is composed of metal-organic framework (MOF) compounds consisting primarily of nickel, copper, and molecular carbon (not atomic carbon graphene sheets or nanotubes). Past MOFs have been incapable of conducting electricity, but this new one can store it, thanks to the new way these elements and molecules are arranged to roughly double the surface area inside the same volume/mass of powder, which is how it doubles the energy density. That area now measures “tens of thousands of square meters per gram.” (!) Note that the elements in question are all abundant and the manufacturing technique should be very similar to today’s supercapacitors, so cost shouldn’t be terribly high.
Even at double today’s energy density (which, by the way, is triple the density of the best supercapacitors 10 years ago), electric vehicles may never run on supercapacitors alone. They’ll still require some chemical battery storage on board, so Lamborghini’s collaboration with MIT’s mechanical engineering department is researching the possibility of integrating solid-state battery storage capacity into the vehicle’s central carbon-fiber structure in the least crash-vulnerable areas like the tunnel and firewalls.
This “built in, not bolted on” approach promises increased safety, vastly smaller packaging, and lighter weight. The team has yet to reach a patentable milestone and is not divulging much information about its progress, but we do know it involves elemental carbon nanotubes that are “grown” perpendicular to and connecting with two layers of structural carbon fiber separated by some small number of microns. Alternating nanotubes serve as anodes and cathodes, closely separated by a solid-state electrolyte, about which no information has been divulged. (MIT has numerous programs ongoing in this space, and with power-optimized supercapacitors on board, said electrolyte can be optimized for energy storage.)
The press event ended with Lamborghini CEO Stefano Domenicali teasing a future research project “in the dimension of the sound,” a cryptic hint that has us intrigued.
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