What will the Future Bring for Electric Vehicle Batteries?

March 21, 2018

As more and more nations declare their intention to prohibit the sale of fossil fuel-powered vehicles, attention naturally shifts to efforts to develop electric vehicle batteries that can meet the performance requirements of demanding duty cycles. Since the introduction of electric vehicle technology, by far the largest focus has been on the ability of these vehicles to have the power and range of their conventionally fueled cousins. This centers attention on the battery, and its ability to both store energy (range) and discharge power (acceleration).

BEVs are Nearly as Old as the Automobile

Since the inception of the automobile, energy for motive power has been stored in fuel – gasoline, diesel, natural gas and various kinds of alcohols being the primary mediums. Although battery electric vehicles have been around nearly as long as the automobile, the primary barrier to their commercial adoption has been that electric vehicle batteries lacked sufficient range to compete with their cousins with internal combustion engines.

The lack of range was a function of the electric vehicle batteries and the conundrum vehicle manufacturers faced. To get range requires more batteries, but the more batteries that were added to the frame, the heavier the vehicle, which reduced range. Acceleration has been another challenge, and manufacturers have long struggled with finding battery technology that balanced energy storage with the capacity to discharge power rapidly.

Range and acceleration have been the challenges EV manufacturers face

While the first efforts to produce commercially viable EVs that addressed these issues used conventional lead-acid electric vehicle batteries, more recently virtually all the battery and plug-in electric models on the market today employ lithium-ion technology. As of this writing, Lithium Ion batteries are the best at matching sufficient energy storage with the capability of providing high performance acceleration. This technology has pushed EVs closer to the mainstream, but there remain significant limitations to lithium ion batteries. These include safety concerns, a challenging weight-to-performance conundrum, and the emerging issues related to use of increasingly scarce and ethically-challenged cobalt as a critical metal in the cathode. This has virtually all the world’s auto manufactures looking to alternatives to lithium ion to provide electricity to their future EVs.

Battery Technology Today

What is the latest technology for electric vehicle batteries?  Below we have looked briefly at some of the leading contenders to power the next generation of electric transportation technology. There are so many recent developments in energy storage technology that it is not possible to summarize them in this format. But, without prejudice or agenda, just calling out a few of them creates a palatable excitement for the future of clean transportation technology, and does lay out a credible pathway to a time, most likely well before we transition to a new century, that our cars, trucks and buses will be true zero emission vehicles.

Solid State Electric Vehicle Batteries

A solid-state battery is a technology that uses both solid electrodes and solid electrolytes, instead of the liquid or polymer electrolytes found in Lithium-ion or Lithium polymer batteries. The first solid state batteries were made of silver sulfide and lead fluoride, and were discovered by the English scientist Michael Faraday, widely regarded as one of the fathers of the science of electromagnetism, electrochemistry, and the laws of electrolysis. Contemporary researchers have offered prototype solid state batteries made of glass, lithium sulfide, magnesium, and ceramics.

Recent developments in energy storage technology creates a palatable excitement for the future of clean transportation technology.

Solid state batteries are projected to be smaller, less costly and have higher energy density that the technologies that currently dominate the market, such as lithium-ion batteries. Several projects are currently underway to develop and commercialize the promising energy storage device. A research alliance made up of the French auto manufacturer Renault, the Japanese car maker Nissan and the Japanese industrial giant Mitsubishi have announced their intention to come to market with solid state battery technology no later than 2030, and possibly as early as 2025.

Toyota is also a leading developer of solid state batteries. The world’s largest car company is banking on solid state storage technology to power all of its electric models post 2025. In October 2017, Toyota’s chairman Takeshi Uchiyamada (best known as the “father” of the Prius) announced that the solid-state battery is the most promising electricity storage technology Toyota is developing. Uchiyamada reported that Toyota knows how to produce solid-state batteries that will have a useful life of 200,000 kilometers, but is still working on mastering how to mass produce the technology. This is critical for a company the builds and sells over 10 million vehicles per year.

Other players are also investing big in solid-state battery technology. In early 2018, the government of the United Kingdom announced that it was investing £42 million in to England’s brand new Faraday Institution for research, development and demonstration of advanced battery technology. The resources are to focus on four key issues in current battery technology – how to reduce the costs and lifespan of electric vehicle batteries, increasing battery performance, developing sustainable recycling strategies, and researching new ‘solid state’ batteries. The Institution, which was created in October 2017, is a public-private partnership bringing together engineers and scientists from England’s premier academic institutions and industry to work together to make the UK the center for research, development, manufacture and production of cutting edge electrical storage technology.

Proton Electric Vehicle Batteries

2018 appears to be a year of considerable progress in the arena of advanced energy storage. In early March, a research team led by John Andrews from the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology published an article in which they claimed to have developed a rechargeable proton battery. The working prototype invented by RMIT scientists uses a carbon electrode to store protons as hydrogen ions. The protons are created from electrolysis powered ­­­by an electric circuit. This is how the electricity is stored. The electricity is released from the carbon electrode by reversing the process. Already, the prototype has the storage capacity per mass as lithium-ion electric vehicle batteries. Since carbon is the primary component of the proton battery, which is both abundant and cheap, production promises to be significantly less expensive than either lithium or metal hydride storage mechanisms that rely on much scarcer natural resources.

Graphene is one of the most exciting recent developments in energy storage

Graphene-based Energy Storage

One of the most exciting developments in the energy storage space is the use of graphene – an ultra-thin form of carbon that has the conductivity characteristics of a super or ultra-capacitor. Not only is graphene thin – it is super conductive at only one atom thick – it is also a remarkably strong, flexible and light weight material. Some of the leading research in the development of graphene as an energy storage device being done at the University of California, Los Angeles, where, in 2012, a team published a paper demonstrating research that had, for the first time, created a graphene electrode that maintained high energy density (range) couples with high power density (speed). What is more, the graphene-based technology developed by UCLA scientists could be charged a hundred to a thousand times faster than conventional electric vehicle batteries.

Several automakers are now investigating the use of graphene as a means to not only store electricity, but also to serve as the structure of the vehicle. By far the most striking effort is the Lamborghini Terzo Millenno (“Third Millennium”), a concept car being developed by the Italian sports car maker and MIT. The Terzo is believed to use the body of the car as its battery, which is revolutionary in concept as well as design. Since the material being developed is a supercapacitor, which can discharge power much faster than even the most advanced commercially available automotive battery, the Terzo should be incredibly fast, capable of acceleration unheard of in today’s electric or conventional vehicles. And since graphene is ultra-light, the Terzo should weigh a fraction of its counterparts made by Tesla and Porsche, which will enhance range. Truly a great leap forward, should the concept become reality.