The move from combustion engine vehicles (CEVs) to electric vehicles (EVs) is moving forward in leaps and bounds. The purchase price of a new EV has continue to drop and charging EV charging stations are starting to pup-up in major cities around the world. Batteries can now power an EV over 350 miles on a single charge. However, the following new developments in battery technology may provide another boost to the rapidly growing demand for EVs:
• Reducing Cobalt – Battery makers are working to reduce the amount of cobalt to the bare minimum to control costs. The problem with cobalt is that it’s largely mined in the Democratic Republic of Congo, a country that’s been a conflict zone for decades. While most of the material is extracted in commercial mines, about 15% is estimated to be from mines that often use child labor.
So companies are under increasing pressure to be able to track where their cobalt is from and show that it’s ethically sourced. This is easier said than done, as the vast majority of the mineral is processed in China where materials from different mines are mixed together indiscriminately.
The battery that Tesla’s currently making for its Model 3 cars and its PowerWalls currently contains less than 3 percent cobalt, according to the company. That’s less than than in the devices that the leading manufacturers in Asia that are targeting for the future. It started manufacturing it in June last year, ramping up production in line with its Model 3 output which is targeting 500,000 vehicles in 2018. Tesla said in August that it’s producing 20 gigawatt-hours of batteries per year.
Lithium Werks in the Netherlands and Comamix in the United States are manufacturing batteries without any cobalt at all. However, these small companies are not producing the batteries anywhere close to Tesla’s scale.
• Safer Batteries – EV batteries if punctured in a crash can leak and ignite. In order to avoid this, battery makers are trying to switch to a solid material. Blue Solutions, a French company is leading the pack in solid state batteries and already has two factories up and running.
Battery safety is an area that has attracted close to $400 million in capital in recent months. Ionic Materials, a U.S. startup is working on replacing the liquid with a plastic, raised $65 million in its Series C round earlier this year. It counts Renault-Nissan-Mitsubishi, Hyundai, Total and Hitachi among its investors. Over the summer, Volkswagen channeled $100 million into QuantumScape, a company in California that’s working on a similar device. The carmaker said it wants to establish a production line for the technology by 2025.
• Energy Density – The ultimate goal of a battery is to pack the maximum amount of power into a very small and light space. That’s where energy density comes in. The more power a battery can store, the longer the car’s range and the more hours a phone or laptop lasts between charges. Weight is also key. The lighter the machine is, the less energy it’ll require for propulsion. This is especially important for vehicles, drones and the nascent electric plane industry.
Pellion Technologies, a startup in Massachusetts, makes a battery that it says can store double the amount of electricity of a conventional power pack. It started shipping it last quarter to customers and is planning to ramp up production 10-fold next year. Battery makers are trying to boost energy density by making the anode, the part of the battery that has a negative charge, with other materials. It’s currently graphite, the stuff in pencils. Researchers are replacing parts of it with silicon and a type of lithium known as lithium metal. Conventional batteries contain the element in a salt form but there is also a version that’s a metal, which is typically less stable. Pellion Technologies Inc’s battery uses lithium metal only when it’s charging, which makes it safe to manufacture.
The automobile manufacturing companies around the world are pouring billions of dollars every year into EV technology. In my opinion, the move from CEVs to EVs will happen much faster than most drivers currently anticipate. Improvements in battery technology will certainly contribute to the future growth of EVs.