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Alabama researchers discover ways to extend battery life

Dr. Jaber Abu Qahouq and Zhiyong Xia, who recently completed his Ph.D., work on a UA project to extend the useful life of EV batteries.

Electric vehicles are gaining traction as many consumers choose a more environmentally friendly way to get around.

But what happens if all those used-up EV batteries end up in landfills?

Researchers at the are finding ways to extend the life of old EV batteries for use in charging stations and even homes and solar panels.

One of the main goals is to provide a safer and “more techno-economically viable” system to use the old batteries, researchers say. Specifically, they want to find ways to extend their life, reduce the carbon footprint and ultimately lessen the demand on the nation’s power grids.

Supported financially by the and in partnership with and ., the research is part of the  at Tuscaloosa, which focuses on the EV market.

After EV batteries are retired, they are likely to become hazardous waste if not reused or recycled, explains Dr. Jaber Abu Qahouq, a professor of electrical and computer engineering at UA. He is also director of the and chief scientific officer of the Alabama Mobility and Power Center.

Lithium-ion battery packs are replaced when they can no longer store a charge of more than 70% to 80% of their original capacity. The battery modules, or cells, degrade unevenly, causing operational risks.

The UA project connects those modules to power converters with control algorithms that monitor the used batteries’ health to avoid overstressing. The batteries could charge back up during times of low power demand and recharge an EV during peak demand.

“Fortunately, the retired EV batteries can continue to be used in a variety of less demanding second-use applications in order to utilize them to their full potential,” Qahouq explains.

As alternative energy storage they can be used as backup power for buildings and homes, for example.

The EV battery modules get a second life, Qahouq says, “where they continue to support electrified transportation infrastructure and electric vehicles but in a less demanding stationary application.”

The closest simple comparison, he says, is with the use of batteries in a camera flashlight versus a TV remote controller.

“The camera flashlight demands instant high power from the batteries and therefore one needs new highly healthy, high-quality batteries in order to operate properly,” Qahouq explains. “On the other hand, a TV remote controller is likely to function well with older, weaker batteries and/or batteries with lower quality or lower health.”

Batteries no longer used for vehicles on a daily basis still have a certain percentage of their initial capacity, Qahouq says. They can continue to support charging stations but must be monitored.

“These batteries can also be utilized in homes and buildings as emergency backup power source when grid power is not available or to store photovoltaic solar panels energy to be used during times when electricity pricing is high or during peak power demand hours,” he says.

Old EV batteries include toxic material and can catch fire if not handled appropriately, notes Qahouq. Using them in new ways and later recycling the materials “can help in reducing impact on the environment by reducing landfill waste and the demand for new raw materials.”

The recycled batteries “store clean and renewable energy for later use.”

In addition to the benefit to the environment, reusing batteries can save money.

“It can potentially be more cost effective compared with manufacturing new batteries,” says Qahouq.

Maximizing the economic benefit “is something we are and will be considering as we progress in this project,” he says.

And when the batteries can no longer provide useful power, says Qahouq, “Later their material can potentially be recycled.” That can be a benefit, too, because the jump in EV sales also triggers a jump in the need for the minerals lithium and graphite — projected to grow as much as 4,000% in coming decades.

Part of a broader program

Michael S. Malley Jr. is an associate research professional for the and Alabama Mobility and Power Center, a partner in this effort. The center at the university supports this research in power technology and delivery and provides a chance for university students to apply their skills after graduation.

The AMP Center focuses on three areas, Malley explains: use-inspired research, economic development and workforce development. The center directs and supports R&D projects related to advanced battery components and energy storage systems.

Michael S. Malley Jr., associate research professional for the Alabama Transportation Institute and Alabama Mobility and Power Center.

It also commissions reports to inform the public and “steer state and local directives around transportation electrification,” he says. In addition, it helps actively recruit businesses across the EV ecosystem and develops learning programs to support EV-related careers.

The AMP Center is headquartered in the Smart Communities and Innovation Building on the UA campus. It includes three facilities, Malley explains.

First, the Laboratory for Advanced Battery Component Research develops battery and energy storage technologies. It addresses raw materials production, materials processing and cell manufacturing, module and pack manufacturing and end-of-life recycling and reuse, Malley explains.

The second component is the Laboratory for Power Research. “This cutting-edge facility is a test bed for the research and development of customer-focused energy storage products and services to enable a new energy economy,” Malley says. “It includes a working micro-grid, solar array, charging infrastructure and more.”

The National Training Center, the third part of the AMP Center, is a collaborative space where industry, academia and government develop high-tech training and joint ventures.

“Students, faculty and staff do a lot of the work,” Malley says, but other colleges, workforce development agencies and EV companies support the work being done there.

“Battery life research is a core component of our domestic battery industry strategy and key to unlocking the potential of our advanced battery technologies and accelerating EV adoption among consumers,” Malley says.

Extending the life and usefulness of EV batteries brings several major benefits, he explains. Malley agrees with Qahouq in saying that one of the biggest is a reduction in the environmental impact.

“This is realized in several ways, such as a diminishing need for extracted resources (like lithium, cobalt and nickel), reductions in waste due to the less frequent disposal of batteries,” he says, as well as “lower manufacturing emissions by way of declining demand for new batteries.”

The other good thing to come from the ongoing research is “better overall energy efficiency as a byproduct of improved battery longevity and innovation,” he adds.

The battery-life research project team at Alabama also includes specialists from Southern Company Services.

Deborah Storey is a Huntsville-based freelance contributor to Business Alabama.

This article appears in the April 2024 issue of Business Alabama.