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updated 3/28/2011 7:33:23 AM ET 2011-03-28T11:33:23

If you kept pace with the North American International Auto Show in Detroit last month, you would think that the future pinnacle of hybrid and electric cars is already upon us. But as Toyota continues to develop its green machines, it is looking to take the electric car to the next level. Here's how.

It's all in the battery
Hybrid electric and full electric cars both rely on one thing to transform them from gas-guzzling demons of the 20th century into the eco-friendly vehicles that will make our planet healthier for centuries to come: electricity. With that electricity comes the need for storage. After all, you can't just pull electricity out of thin air (unless you're in a lightning storm), right?

While car manufacturers have made some advances in vehicle battery design for electric hybrids, the composition of the battery remains the same as that of those in most laptop computers. Lithium-ion cells are fairly cheap compared to more exotic materials, and they hold their fair share of electrical charge.

The problem is the longevity of such a charge and of the battery itself. Most hybrid lithium-ion batteries only have a capacity of 2,000 kilowatt hours. A kilowatt hour is the equivalent of using 1,000 watts of power for one hour. Think about running 10 100-watt light bulbs in your home for one hour. That's a kilowatt hour. So 2,000 kilowatt hours sounds pretty good, no?

In comparison with traditional gasoline-powered vehicles, however, the resulting difference in performance is striking. The average automobile can travel several hundred miles on a single tank of gas, which can then be refilled within minutes. The all-electric vehicle on the market with the best range, the Nissan Leaf, only has a range of 73 miles, according to the EPA. The Chevy Volt is in second place with 35 miles in all-electric mode.

Not rocket science, but close enough
Toyota believes that future electric vehicle batteries will have to perform better to be competitive. And the company thinks it's found a solution: It's called magnesium. So what is magnesium, and why will it be a better battery component for future electric vehicles?

Magnesium is pure metal that is the eighth most plentiful substance found in the earth's crust. In its pure form, it burns with a white-hot flame, which makes it ideal for use in camping gear as a fire starter. But in this case, it's the primary substance needed for magnesium-sulfate batteries, which can hold twice the electrical capacity as the same size lithium-ion models on the market today.

So why aren't these already in production? More research is still needed to optimize the batteries. In addition, creating them isn't as cheap as the more common lithium-ion. But that's not a deterrent for Toyota, where the research is ongoing even as you read this article. At a research center just outside Ann Arbor, Michigan, Toyota continues to experiment and hopes to see a viable magnesium battery for the car market by 2020.

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