Intelligent Energy

BAE turns Le Mans race car's carbon fiber body into a battery

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It's a car! A flashlight! A soldier's backpack! A 'structural battery'! UK firm says composites are most radical way to store electricity in 200 years. Brit understatement ain't what it used to be.

Body Boost: Engineers will mold a battery right into the carbon fiber body of this Lola-Drayson Le Mans prototype.

British defense firm BAE Systems has developed a technology that turns carbon fiber and other materials into a battery, allowing car bodies to provide power in place of weighty battery packs.

BAE said in a press release that its "structural battery" currently works with carbon fiber and glass reinforced plastics, and that it will develop it for a wide range of lightweight fabrics leading to applications "from tents with their own power supply to making electric blankets a literal reality."

The company is testing the technology in the Lola-Drayson B12/69EV Le Mans car, introduced at the 2012 Low Carbon Racing Conference last month in Birmingham, England by British companies Lola Group and Drayson Racing with the aim of making it the world's fastest electric race vehicle.

Lola-Drayson will use the technology to power "some of the on-board electronic system," according to the press release.

BAE has already demonstrated the technology in a drone - a high tech micro unmanned air vehicle as BAE calls it -  and in a flashlight. It developed it to lighten the load of soldier's backpacks, which can weigh up to 176 pounds when full of electrical gear.

The technology "merges battery chemistries into composite materials that can be molded into complex 3D shapes and so form the structure of the device itself," the press release states. It uses nickel - common in military gear for its longevity and durability. Future designs will include lithium ion and lithium polymer technologies which are common in consumer gadgets.

"The structural batteries store the electrical energy within the physical structure of a device and thus helping to reduce or eliminate the need for traditional batteries, which create weight and bulk, as well as the burden and cost of carrying spares," BAE said.

"Structural batteries can be used in virtually anything that requires electricity from small gadgets to entire vehicles," added Alex Parfitt, BAE capability technology leader for materials. "It can not only support our soldiers on the frontline, but also revolutionize technology in the consumer market by allowing more efficient, elegant and lighter designs."

According to the BBC, BAE is working to increase the structural batteries' power density - the amount of energy they store per weight - which is currently very low at about a third of electric car batteries and a tenth of the lithium batteries in consumer devices.

Drayson, part of the race team testing the technology, is also testing an on-the-go wireless charging system from Qualcomm, which recently acquired the technology via its acquisition of British/New Zealand firm HaloIPT.

Before the BAE technology catches on in the mass market, it will also have to overcome cost barriers.

In its press release BAE called structural batteries, "The most radical method of storing electricity since the invention of batteries over 200 years ago," and said they "may lead to a redesign of all electrical technology." British understatement ain't what it used to be.

Image: Screen grab of Lola-Drayson B12/69EV from Drayson Racing web video.

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Mark Halper

Contributing Editor

Mark Halper has written for TIME, Fortune, Financial Times, the UK's Independent on Sunday, Forbes, New York Times, Wired, Variety and The Guardian. He is based in Bristol, U.K. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure