Researchers at Imperial College London have patented a new form of carbon-fiber laminate that they feel could end up replacing batteries in future-generation electric as well as conventional vehicles. The development team currently is working with several other European partners, including Volvo Cars which holds a patent for using the material in automotive bodywork applications, to further enhance its energy storage/discharge capabilities and find ways to commercialize production.

Strong and lightweight, this new material has the ability to store and provide relatively large amounts of electrical energy compared to a normal battery. Because its operation requires no chemical reaction, recharging can take place much more quickly and causes far less internal degradation. While the prototype system will rely on a basic plug-in protocol for initial charging, the researchers claim it's also capable of gathering energy from regenerative braking.

The initial stage of a $4.6-million project will involve efforts aimed at increasing the amount of energy storage possible in this high-tech material, an endeavor that will focus on "growing" surface-expanding nanotubes on the individual carbon-fiber strands that make up its resin-impregnated cloth. Although the first test use will see it replace the steel spare-tire well in a Volvo, the material, which is some 15 percent lighter than normal body panels, can be easily formed into anything from doors to decklids and hoods to roof panels. The team foresees its most dramatic applications existing in the Hybrid/EV arena. But even conventional vehicles with internal combustion engines could benefit by totally eliminating or greatly reducing the size of their batteries, and by cutting down the amount of heavy and pricey wiring required to link up existing functional systems.

The project coordinator, Dr. Emile Greenhalgh, from the Department of Aeronautics at Imperial College London, admits that while still early on in the process, "we think our composite material shows real promise.

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