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Missouri engineers could make charging an electric car as fast as filling a gas tank

A charging Nissan Leaf.
Researchers at Missouri S&T are working with engineers at Ameren Illinois and St. Louis battery testing company Bitrode to develop stations that can fully charge an electric car in 10 minutes.

Engineers in Missouri are taking on a challenge that could make owning an electric car far more convenient — building a charging station that fully charges up a car in 10 minutes.

Electric cars can help reduce carbon emissions and the human contribution to climate change. But the time it takes to charge an electric vehicle’s battery represents a major roadblock to owning one. The fastest available technology is the Tesla Supercharger, which takes an hour to fully charge a car.

The U.S. Department of Energy has given $2.9 million to a team of engineers develop fast-charging electric vehicle stations. The team includes engineers from Missouri S&T, Ameren Illinois, battery maker LG Chem Michigan and Bitrode, a St. Louis battery testing company. The goal is to develop a charger that works almost as fast as a gas station, said Jonathan Kimball, an electrical and computer engineer at Missouri University of Science and Technology.

“You pull up to the charging station and you plug it in. Go in, use the restroom, get a drink, get a snack and you’re ready to get back on the road,” Kimball said.

To develop a fast-charging station, researchers must address a few major challenges. They will need to develop a lithium-ion battery that can withstand such a large charge in a short amount of time.

“One of the biggest obstacles to overcome is cooling,” said Michael Hill, director of engineering at Bitrode. “You have to worry about the battery [overheating]. Also, we’ll be [working on] cooling the mechanism enough so that it stays efficient and provides the proper amount of power to the battery.”

Researchers aim to have the battery tested by Bitrode in two years. The following year, they’ll demonstrate the technology at Ameren’s Technology Applications Center in Champaign, Illinois. Engineers will have to address the pressure the fast-charging technology could have on the electric grid, said Rod Hilburn, manager of Ameren’s Technology Applications Center.

“By drawing a large amount of electricity out of the distribution system, you can create problems on the electric distribution system,” Hilburn said.

The effect of fast charging stations on the electric grid would be similar to how turning on air conditioning in older houses causes lights to dim for a moment, Kimball said. As the stations pull energy from the grid, there will likely be less voltage available in the system, which could affect the amount of power that’s accessible in a community.

“The power system has regulation devices on it to deal with those kinds of issues; they’re not used to dealing with these fast, transient [energy loads],” Kimball said. “We need to make sure we don’t ruin the power quality to our neighbors.”

But ultimately, the technology could help encourage motorists to drive more environmentally friendly vehicles.

“As we grow our renewable energy portfolio with more wind and solar, we can directly displace fossil fuels in the transportation market,” Kimball said.

Follow Eli on Twitter: @StoriesByEli

Eli is the science and environment reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.

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