Imagine making the 19-hour, 1,800-kilometre drive from Toronto to Halifax in an electric car without having to stop for a recharge.
That's theoretically possible with a special kind of battery being demonstrated this week in Montreal by Israel-based Phinergy and Alcoa Canada.
The partners have refurbished an "ordinary car" to use a special "aluminum-air" battery.
The battery can extend the range of an electric car by 1,600 kilometres when used in conjunction with the vehicle's regular lithium-ion battery.
"We hope that this will increase the penetration of electric cars with zero emissions," said Aviv Tzidon, CEO of Phinergy, in an interview with CBC Montreal's Homerun earlier this week, adding that it should put an end to "range anxiety."
That kind of anxiety about how far an electric car can go before needing a recharge has often been cited as a reason the market for electric cars is still relatively small.
The regular battery range of electric cars now on the market is a few hundred kilometres at most — 135 kilometres for the Nissan Leaf and 480 kilometres for the more expensive version of the Tesla Model S. That makes those cars unsuitable for extended road trips, unless high-voltage fast-charging stations, which are still relatively uncommon, are available along the way.
"When you're buying a car, you want to buy freedom," Tzidon said. "When you have a car which is limited in range, and you need to have infrastructure to [fast-charge it], you are losing this freedom."
According to Tzidon, the new battery technology can store enough energy to take a car 3,000 kilometres with 100 kilograms of aluminum-air batteries. For comparison, the Tesla Model S battery is estimated to be more than 500 kilograms.
The batteries are "charged" not from the electrical grid, but from hydroelectric power generated at Alcoa's smelter in Baie-Comeau, Que., Tzidon said. When they are full-charged, they are thick, heavy panels made mostly of aluminum.
The energy is released via a chemical reaction that draws oxygen from the air and uses water fed into the car by the user to turn the aluminum into alumina (similar to the reaction that turns iron into rust). This reaction happens naturally when aluminum is exposed to air, but then, the alumina layer on the surface stops the reaction from penetrating deeper. Phinergy's technology includes an electrolyte that dissolves the surface layer, allowing the reaction to continue.
According to Alcoa, car owners need to refill the aluminum air battery with tap water every month or two to feed the chemical reaction.
The spent batteries would be replaced with charged batteries during a "quick operation" at a local service station.
Because the car would still rely on its regular rechargable lithium-ion battery most of the time and would switch to the aluminum-air battery as a backup only if the lithium-ion battery ran out, and because most car trips are 50 kilometres or less, Alcoa estimates the aluminum-air batteries would only need to be changed about once a year.
Tzidon gave a presentation about the car at Wednesday's Canadian International Aluminium Conference, where the car went on display following a demonstration drive at the Circuit Gilles-Villeneuve racetrack earlier this week.
Tzidon said Phinergy and Alcoa are currently in talks with the Quebec government about the possibility of a demonstration project involving a small fleet of vehicles using its technology.