Disruptive technologies: Lithium-ion batteries
Can chemistry change the way America drives?
“To compete with advancing gasoline/diesel engines, EV traction batteries have to be much more than twice as energy dense as lithium-ion ever will be, at least three times cheaper, and last much longer before replacement,” states a recent TrendTracker report.
So, does that mean that lithium is a dead end technology? What will it take to make lithium a truly disruptive technology?
Apples to apples, lithium-ion battery technologies simply don’t compare to gasoline powered internal combustion engine vehicles. It’s just not yet in the elements. That chemical reality has been acknowledged by many in the battery segment.
For instance IBM Almaden Researchers working on future batteries note, “Since the efficiency of electric propulsion systems (battery-to-wheels) are about 90%, a 10-fold improvement of the current energy densities of Li-ion batteries, which are typically between 100 and 200 Wh/kg (cell level), would bring electric propulsion systems on-par with gasoline, at least as measured by gravimetric energy density. However, there is no expectation that current batteries such as Li-ion will ever come close to the target of 1700 Wh/kg. New chemistries are required to achieve this goal.”
No problem, right? Just tweak the solution in that beaker, son.
To resolve this problem, IBM researchers have been working on more futuristic battery technologies, such as lithium- air batteries. To wit IBM notes, “the requirements for large capacity automotive propulsion batteries are extensive, but quite well defined. They will serve as guidelines for the research to be carried out on Li-air systems. At present, automotive propulsion batteries are just beginning the transition from nickel metal hydride to Li-ion batteries, after nearly 35 years of research and development on the latter. The transition to Li-air batteries (if successful) should be viewed in terms of a similar development cycle.”
35 years? Are your fricken kidding me? Throw that beaker against the wall.
Of course, an unexpected breakthrough or some completely out-of-the-box thinking could turn these lithium-based chemistry studies on their heads. Unfortunately, that’s a bet with low probability.
Nevertheless, that doesn’t mean that lithium-ion batteries couldn’t be a disruptive technology. Some kind of dynamic charging capability or a change in consumer expectations could rewrite the book on lithium-ion potential.
If for instance, 90 percent of your driving needs require less than 40 miles of range, why can’t a plug-in with a minimum of 70 miles of electric power not be feasible?
Because if you’re gonna pay $30,000 for a vehicle you expect far more functionality, right?
But, what if you were only paying $15,000 for such a vehicle? Sure it might only be a two-seater. Additionally, such a vehicle might make even the science-fiction looking design of the Toyota Prius seem overly conventional.
Regardless, would that really be so bad if such a vehicle were truly cost-effective? So cost-effective in fact that combined with the rental costs for an occasional weekend car for longer trips, your plug-in purchase was still far more cost-effective than any other vehicle?
Maybe. American consumers are a pretty fickle bunch.
Inevitably, lithium-ion batteries are only going to be a disruptive technology if consumers revolutionize their thinking about personal transportation. And, if gas prices keep rising, such out-of-the-box thinking isn’t really that hard to imagine.
Will it happen? Probably not, but it could, as could some completely unexpected technological breakthrough.
Of course, as hybrid cars have pushed automakers to embrace technologies like start/stop, perhaps lithium-ion can help automakers re-imagine plug-ins in a way never before imagined.
For instance, battery-maker EnerDel’s subdivision EnerFuel sees a future where something like the Chevy Volt could significantly reduce its battery size by replacing the gasoline engine with a small fuel cell as range extender with on-board gasoline to hydrogen reformer. Based on such a combination of technologies, EnerFuel envisions powertrain combinations that offer less overall range, such as just 200 miles, but at significantly reduced costs compared to the current Volt’s powertrain architecture.
200 miles of range with instant fueling capabilities comparable to today’s gasoline-powered technologies? Sure it’s not perfect for cross country trips, but for everything else it more than works. Even for long distance trips it isn’t pushing most consumers that far outside of their box most of the time.
Inevitably, lithium-ion batteries by themselves are probably not enough to become a disruptive technology; however, if lithium-ion technologies can provide the impetus to push automakers and consumers outside of their box of conventional thinking and expectations, lithium-ion could still become a disruptive technology.