Imagine driving a zero-emissions car that didn’t need anything from you for 1,500 miles — no gas fill-ups or even plugging in. Thanks to a persistent inventor, that may be a reality in the UK as soon as next year.
British engineer Trevor Jackson has developed a recyclable power source for vehicles using aluminum-air technology. The batteries, called Métalectrique, are promised to fuel a passenger car for 1,500 miles, and instead of getting recharged, they would be swapped out for new ones in 90 seconds and then recycled. All this would cost 7 pence per mile ($.09), according to the company, which is cheaper than gas or electric fuel costs.
Jackson’s company is partnering with Austin Electric Ltd., to offer kits to convert gas and diesel cars into aluminum-air cell hybrids by 2020, and they are in talks with major grocery chains to serve as swapping stations for the cartridges, according to the Daily Mail. After that, they plan to produce electric vehicles powered by aluminum-air fuel cells.
The technology itself is nothing new. Aluminum-air batteries produce electricity when aluminum reacts with oxygen in the air with the help of a chemical electrolyte solution. In the process, the aluminum is converted into aluminum hydroxide, which can be recycled back into aluminum. Aluminum-air batteries have been used in military applications, and you can even make one yourself at home with foil, water, salt and activated charcoal.
One problem of aluminum-air technology has been with the electrolytes used. They were poisonous and caustic and would create a gel-like byproduct that blocked the air from reaching the cell and diminished efficiency. Jackson’s breakthrough is a proprietary electrolyte solution that solves those problems. (It’s so safe, that he says he’s drank it in front of investors.) It also works with lower-purity aluminum instead of more expensive pure aluminum.
According to Métalectrique’s website, the system produces more energy than lithium-ion batteries in a much smaller and lighter package. In larger vehicles with room for larger batteries, the mileage could increase. Jackson has also developed more powerful system that has potential applications in defense, aircraft propulsion and high-power vehicles.
Not only could this technology be cheaper and easier for drivers, it could have a host of other positives. It creates zero emissions at the vehicle level, and the battery’s key material, aluminum, is widely available and can be recycled indefinitely. And thanks to a battery swapping system more akin to how we swap out propane tanks, it wouldn’t require new fueling infrastructure, like electric or hydrogen fuel cell vehicles do.
But the promise of powering transportation through aluminum-air batteries is not without potential environmental pitfalls. While aluminum is abundant, mining it is still hard on the environment, and the smelting process is energy intensive. Metaectrique’s website points out, however, that many smelters are powered by renewable energy sources like hydro, geothermal or nuclear, and potential innovations in the smelting process could make aluminum production cleaner.
As attractive as this technology sounds, Jackson has faced barriers to get to this point. According to TechCrunch, Jackson has been trying to get support for his work from the UK government since 2001. He found backing in France and the auto industry in the meantime. It wasn’t until this year that he found support at home from a business accelerator for low carbon vehicle technologies funded by the UK government and the auto industry.
It seems that the partnership with Austin Electric means aluminum-air batteries may finally get a chance to be tested in the market. If all goes well, maybe your empty soda cans will help get you to work someday.