Car Batteries – policy or technology the bigger threats

What is a Gigafactory, costs $5b US and is said will reduce battery pack cost per kWh by 30% by 2017? We kid you not the source of this statistic is talking about TESLA plans for an enormous battery factory in south western USA, and the source is IIT Takeshita dated 2013. The report is linked to the BBC news service 31 March 2013. Whilst all that sounds wonderful, we have a problem. The weakest link for the acceptance of the electric car is the batteries.

It follows that the technology of batteries also mean any plans to set up Gigafactories, such as the TESLA plan to produce lithium-ion batteries for 500,000 cars by 2020 is under threat before it has started. New technologies are being developed that could offer better alternatives to address what experts say is one of the biggest limiting factors for electric vehicles.

“The problem these cars face is that batteries are big and heavy, and as a consequence only a limited number can be installed. The Tesla Model S for example, has a battery pack approximately two metres long by 1.2 metres wide, which is installed flat along the floor of the car. In the top-spec car, that gives a range of about 300 miles (482km) before plugging in and recharging is required. The Nissan Leaf achieves more like 80 miles (128km). On top of that, charging is a much slower process than just filling up with petrol.

How can you make a better battery, then? At its most basic a battery contains a positive and negative electrode, a separator and an electrolyte. Many different types of materials can be used as electrodes, the different combinations of materials allowing different amounts of energy to be stored. However battery life and the safety characteristics change as the materials change, so a compromise is always necessary. Lithium-ion batteries are popular, but have been implicated in fires on board planes, and their transport is restricted . Anything more reactive or unstable could be a hazard. Get the combination right, though, and the payoff could be huge.

The latest efforts follow a long line of improvements over the decades. First we had lead-acid batteries, the type that is still commonly used in cars; they are huge. Then, you might remember NiCad (nickel-cadmium) batteries – they were the rechargeable batteries that heralded a new era of portable technology – laptops, phones, and the like, as well as the remote control cars of our childhoods. Then came NiMH (nickel metal hydride) batteries, with about twice the capacity, or energy density. Now modern devices and electric cars are powered by lithium ion, or Li-ion, batteries.” Again the source is BBC News quoting Phil Gott, the senior planning director at HIS Automotive.

Then comes news that there are materials which can double the current energy density available for batteries. The BBC again quoted Daniel Abraham, a material scientist at Argonne National Laboratory, outside Chicago in the US. “We dream up or imagine the types of materials we would like to work with, then we attempt to synthesize the materials in the laboratory.”

Being developed, or maybe more correctly investigated, is batteries known as lithium-air, or lithium-oxygen, or lithium-sulphur batteries. Lithium-oxygen batteries. Talked about, as they are not yet working as planned, but are promising when that is sorted will be an order of magnitude improvement over the current Li-ion batteries.

But although the technology has revolutionary potential, the technical challenges of making a Lithium-air battery work consistently, reliably, and safely – and crucially for extended durations – are large. So far the electrodes have proven unstable.

But we guess we can look forward to a future where we will eventually have better, faster, travel further cars that run on batteries.

The question then becomes: Will the treat to the planned Gigafactory be the technology, will nothing be done after all. Co2Land org supposes if the politics of the day says government will announce yea or nay support after the project is ready to proceed – will it happen at all? It would be an enormous risk for investors. If the government were a more traditional policy announcement then left to be proven would that not be a better business risk? Interesting is it not?