How sensors and analytics can boost battery life

While commercial scale battery manufacturing might be struggling in the U.S., innovation is actually alive and well here, and turns out new battery technology is not always about new chemicals or separators or architecture. Sometimes good ol’ information technology can help out, too.

GE, Ford and the University of Michigan are working on developing a tiny sensor system for a battery that when combined with analytics can extend the range of a battery in an electric vehicle. There are already sensors on the market that are trying to do something similar, but current sensors are too big to be able to fit in certain areas of the battery, says GE. GE will develop the wee system and pair it with real-time modelling of a battery’s behavior.

Such a system, which the group recently won a $3.1 million grant from the Department of Energy to build, could provide a substantial boost to electric car batteries. The range of a car battery — which is also chiefly tied to its cost — is the biggest problem for electric cars today. One hundred miles is about the average of the current electric cars on the market. The team has three years to create the first working version.

Sophisticated battery management system technology — which uses software in a car or on the power grid or on a cell phone — can help use batteries efficiently. Electric car companies Coda and Tesla Motors (s TSLA) tout their battery management systems as some of their more important intellectual property. Other startups like GELI want to create a sort of operating system for batteries for the power grid.

Then there’s a startup like Pellion, which is using computer modelling to test out 10,000 potential cathode materials to fit with its magnesium anode for its battery. Basically they’re using a computer as a really smart brain to figure out the battery chemistry problem.

Because battery chemistry is such a hard problem, it’s pretty natural that we’re turning to the power of analytics, big data, cloud computing and all those other fun IT buzz words to solve it.