One of the biggest hurdles electric car makers like Tesla Motors Inc (NASDAQ:TSLA) have been dealing with is the high cost of lithium ion batteries. But what if a material that’s plentiful and inexpensive could be used in making a battery that’s even better than the ones currently on the market? Researchers at the University of California say they discovered that sand may be the answer.

Sand Lithium iOn Batteries

Sand-based lithium ion batteries

Phys.org reports that researchers have developed a lithium ion battery that outperforms standard batteries that are currently available in the industry by three times. Graduate student Zachary Favors, who’s working on the project, calls their sand-based lithium ion battery “the holy grail,” adding that it’s a “low cost, non-toxic, environmentally friendly way to produce high performance lithium ion battery anodes.”

Favors said he came up with the idea about six months ago while he was relaxing on the beach. He examined some sand closely and noticed that it was mostly made up of quartz, a.k.a., silicon dioxide.

Building a better lithium ion battery

The graduate student said he is focusing on building better lithium batteries for both consumer electronic devices and electric vehicles. Specifically, he is working on the anode, which is the battery’s negative side. Currently graphite is the standard material used for the anode, but supply has become a concern as the electronics industry gobbles up more and more graphite. In addition, scientists have already improved graphite almost as much as will be possible.

Researchers at the university are working on using silicon at the billionths of a meter, or nanoscale, to replace graphite. The issue they’re having is that nanoscale silicon degrades fast and is difficult to produce in large amounts.

Solving the problems

Favors searched the U.S. to find a place where the sand is made up of quartz in high percentages. He ended up in Cedar Creek Reservoir outside of Dallas, incidentally, the area in which he grew up. He took the sand back to the lab and milled it down to nanometer size and then purified it. Then he ground magnesium and salt, which are in plentiful supply in sea water, into the pure quartz and heated the powder. As the salt absorbs the heat, the magnesium removed the oxygen from the quartz, leaving behind pure silicon.

In the process of doing this, the research team found that not only did they get pure silicon from it, they also found that the resulting nano-silicon came in a “very porous 3-D silicon sponge like consistency.” They say the porosity ended up being the key to improving the performance of the batteries they build using that nano-silicon. Better performance could mean increasing the lifespan of electric vehicle batteries up to three times or more. Cell phone batteries could be charged every three days instead of every day.

The only question now is which company is going to jump all over this research. Tesla Motors would be wise to do so if it doesn’t already have other better ideas.