NiMH Batteries Could Yet Again Power Electric Cars Says BASF, Thanks to Ten-Fold Increase in Energy Density

At some point in the future, we’re pretty sure historians will call the current period of history we’re living in the lithium-ion age, because lithium-ion battery packs are used in everything from electric car battery packs and laptop computers to gadgets, medical devices and telephones.

Not so long ago however, nickel-metal-hydride batteries were the preferred chemistry of the humble rechargeable battery pack, thanks to their lower cost and long life. Look back at any of the first-generation plug-in cars produced at the turn of the last century — the Toyota RAV4 EV or late-model GM EV1 for example, — and you’ll find nickel-metal hydride battery packs providing the grunt needed to power these legendary vehicles.

Previous generation cars like the RAV4 EV used NiMH battery packs.

Previous generation cars like the RAV4 EV used NiMH battery packs.

These days, nickel-metal-hydride battery packs are only found in a handful of hybrid vehicles — like Toyota’s legendary family of Prius hybrids — and the occasional low-volume electric vehicle, but as our friends over at GreenCarReports detail, that could soon change thanks to a promised ten-fold increase in NiMh battery capacity being talked about by German chemical supplier BASF.

According to a recent post over at Technology ReviewBASF’s team of scientists who work at its dedicated research centre have been working hard to change the microstructure of the electrodes used in nickel-metal battery packs, making it far more energy dense and durable. The result? it needs less electrode material for a given power output and storage capacity.

They claim already to have produced NiMH cells in a laboratory environment with an energy density of 140 watt-hours per kilogram. While that’s less than 230-240 watt-hours that some lithium-ion cells can produce, NiMH is inherently more stable as a battery chemistry, requiring less safety failsafes than lithium-ion.

BASF says it thinks it can increase the energy density of NiMH cells tenfold.

BASF says it thinks it can increase the energy density of NiMH cells tenfold.

In an automotive application for example, the weight saved by choosing NiMH over lithium-ion could represent a sizeable improvement in overall efficiency, and with NiMH battery packs known to suffer less from premature ageing and degradation with time, opting for NiMH rather than lithium-ion could pay dividends for an automaker willing to support BASF in its research.

At the moment, BASF says it believes it can continue to work on increasing the energy density of its NiMH test cells, resulting the kind of energy density never-before imagined for that particular chemistry. If it succeeds — with a figure of around 700 watt-hours per kilogram — it would also place NiMH back in the spotlight as the chemistry of choice, since a ten-fold increase would place it way ahead of current lithium-ion technology.

In addition to dramatically increasing the storage capabilities of an automotive battery pack by an order of magnitude while reducing its weight by an equally large amount, the kind of developments being researched by BASF could very well pave the way to cars that could travel more than 1,000 miles on a battery pack the same size as the ones in today’s mid-priced electric cars.

NiMH is still used today in Toyota Prius hybrid battery packs (except the Prius Plus and Prius plug-in hybrid)

NiMH is still used today in Toyota Prius hybrid battery packs (except the Prius Plus and Prius plug-in hybrid)

At that point, the use of hydrogen fuel cells and indeed any kind of fossil fuel, would become something of a moot point for most car drivers.

There’s only one problem: at the moment, this technology and the promises being made are stuck in a laboratory environment. Just like so many other battery breakthroughs we’ve told you about in recent years, it’s a long way from the laboratory to the automotive factory.

It’s worth remembering too that BASF is researching other battery technologies too at the same time, like advanced lithium-ion cells.

That said, BASF isn’t a small research company and unlike other battery breakthroughs we’ve covered, has a fighting chance of bringing this technology to market.

Watch this space.

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  • vdiv

    Now that Coyota has hybrid drivetrains in many of their models I wonder if the Prius model line has been superseded in number by all of the rest combined. For example I saw a lot of Auris hybrids in Europe, and a lot of Toyota Camry/Lexus ES hybrids here in the States. It will be interesting to know the differences in those drivetrains and battery sizes.

  • Michael Thwaite

    Does anyone know if the patents on NiMH have expired? I’m thinking yes but, I’m not 100%.

  • Ad van der Meer

    They appear also to assume the energy density of Li Ion batteries doesn’t improve in the mean time. They could be overtaken left and right by all kinds of technologies, but it’s good that that many roads are followed. One or more of them will bring EV’s at cost parity with ICE cars and probably pass them in the future.

  • D. Harrower

    I can’t recall why we originally moved away for NiMH cells in the first place. Was it just due to low energy density? Aren’t they the ones with the “memory”?

    • No, memory effect was a problem with NiCad.

      • D. Harrower

        Ah, good call. nnI always get those two mixed up.

    • Nick Perry-Guetti

      No. There was no significant problem with the tech. Chevron, an oil giant, grabbed exclusive rights to the tech with the help of GM, its partner in the AAM. It sat on the patent till last year and refused to sell any batteries.

  • Professor Ray Wills

    A key factor that may play is availability and resource cost – unlike lithium, there are no supply-side concerns for nickel…

  • Ah the mythical 10x battery.nnnIt seems that battery technology advances of late have been incremental and not huge jumps in technology.nnnI remember being told I was crazy to buy my LEAF when I did as the technology would advance so fast it would be obsolete before I knew it. Well almost 4 years later with over 60,000 miles on the clock and the 200 mile EV at best 2 years away, it looks like my car maybe obsolete after 90,000 miles of driving when it won’t be worth much anyway. For new technology that’s acceptable enough to me. It just so happens I buy a new car on average once every 6 years. I seem to be sticking to form.nnn’Breakthroughs’ in the lab don’t necessarily correlate to rapid change in the real world.

  • JH

    Just dont kill it with patents. Thats something Tesla is doing _right_, by releasing the patents freely they cater for a growing market. Patent fencing will just kill the product.

  • seekless

    Hydrogen is more of the future.
    The Prius V is weak looking and has weak sales, and could be halted soon.

    • Nick Perry-Guetti

      Hydrogen is an illusion cooked by the oil industry to delay the use of EVs that already work fine if anyone is allowed to build them. If the Prius is failing, it’s because they’re crappy cars to drive and have a bigger carbon footprint than my Kia Rio.

  • Nick Perry-Guetti

    What this article doesn’t tell you is that NiMH batteries have been way ahead of lithium ion since they were first invented by ECD decades ago, and when the author claims that NiMH is languishing “in the laboratory” (as if the tech needs further development in order to be usable), I’m sorry but there is no historical evidence of this. All existing historical evidence points to NiMH languishing in the hands of Chevron, who obtained the patent for the tech and refused to sell any batteries for about twenty years, and sued other people who tried to. If this company is asking for money because they claim to need to do more research and testing on something that already works better than any lithium ion battery out there, you maybe shouldn’t ought to buy it.