Battery and Charging Technology 20240128

It has become obvious to nearly everyone that we need to stop burning fossil fuels, and while that is all well and good, what takes their place? We have renewable energy sources that can provide electricity to run our vehicles and power our homes, but they tend to be intermittent. The Sun only shines half of the day, winds come and go, and the key technology we need to bridge the gap is battery technology. Fortunately there have been some important developments that provide good news on this front. Much of this comes from China which has no oil resources of its own is and is therefor incentivized push research into alternatives. And another country in a similar situation is Japan, which has the same incentives and has also done good work in this area. The United States, in contrast, is a major oil producer and as such has faced significant opposition to efforts to move to renewables.

One major area we need to look at is for automobiles. The share of new vehicles that are electric goes up each year, and they will be the largest share of new vehicles sooner than most people realize. In 2023, Norway had 90% of their sales be EVs in the first half of 2023. This figure includes both pure electric vehicles and hydrid-electric vehicles. In Germany the comparable figure was 35%, and in China 33% ( Meanwhile, California and Washington have mandated that 100% of new vehicles be electric by 2035,. New Jersey has a similar mandate and I would expect other states will join in this. But the main obstacle to increased adoption is what is called “range anxiety”. For example, most electric cars right now have around a 300 mile top range on a full charge. And recharging can take up to an hour at a time. I do a trip each year from my home in Michigan to New England, where most of the family for both me and my wife live, and that is around 800 miles. So that would mean stopping at least twice going each way for up to an hour for a recharge. The solution has to be some combination of higher capacity batteries and quicker recharging times. Fortunately there is progress on both of these fronts.

Contemporary Amperex Technology Co, Ltd. (CATL)

This is the largest battery manufacturer in the world, and it is a Chinese company. For that reason, there are accusations in the US that they are a security concern. But the rest of the world is not likely to worry too much about that. What they have done technically is to improve the capacity and charging times of their batteries significantly. They now are shipping batteries that power a car for 400km (about 250 miles) on just a 10 minute charge. So for my trip each year I would spend 30 minutes recharging instead of two hours. That starts to look like a feasible plan. Or with a full charge, it could go 700km (435 miles). So I could get a full charge before leaving home, do a couple of 10 minute charges on the way, and be there with power to spare. That is totally doable. As a pair of senior citizens I can assure you we spend more time than that in the bathrooms as we go. These batteries are fairly conventional as rechargeables go, being Lithium-Iron-Phosphate (LIP) in their chemistry. But what about other technologies?

Solid-State Batteries

One of the leaders with this technology is Toyota, which is the early leader in hybrid vehicles, which combine a gasoline (petrol) engine with batteries and electric motors. So they have probably more automotive experience with batteries than any manufacturer in the business, even though they are a bit later to the fully-electric vehicle market. Solid-state batteries can avoid using Lithium, which can be a safety issue, and they will be lighter and have a higher energy density. Because this is new technology, it may not appear in production for another 3-4 years, but Toyota claims they should be able to produce a car that will go 1200km (750 miles) on a 10 minute charge. Here is a look at Toyota’s plans:

Of course, Toyota is far from the only company researching this. Honda is the main competitor to Toyota in Hybrid vehicles, and they have plans for solid-state batteries as well: Chinese manufacturer NIO has a semi-solid state battery right now that can go 650 miles (1046 km) on a single charge.

It is worth noting that the idea of solid-state batteries is not all that new, as Michael Faraday first discovered them in the early 19th century. What is new is the technology to scale up the batteries into something that can power an automobile.

For as good look at how solid-state batteries work, here is an explanation from the Harvard University School of Engineering and Applied Sciences: And here is one from New Scientist: And here is Wikipedia:

Other Technologies

BYD is a Chinese company that is the world’s largest EV producer. They employ a technology that is called the Blade battery. This is a variation on LIP technology that the company claims is safer, has a longer range, and a longer lifetime.

Sodium-ion batteries are a coming thing as well. This is not surprising since Sodium and Lithium are in the same chemical family both being alkali metals. So they should have similar properties. But one advantage of sodium is that it is more abundant. So sodium-ion batteries should cost less, and unlike lithium produce no toxic by-products. The Swedish company Northvolt has made great progress in this area:

Role for Government

The biggest problem is the lack of infrastructure around battery recharging, and that is where there is a role for government. In the US, which I am most familiar with, the government has in the past intervened to promote transportation innovations. In the 19th century, it was the promotion of railroads, which the government aided through substantial land grants. Then in the 20th century it was building the road network. Those things would not have happened if the government had not made those investments. I would suggest that there is a need now to build out the charging infrastructure at a speed and scale that the private sector cannot accomplish. That would solve the last problem preventing wide-spread adoption of Electric Vehicles. Companies are now producing, or will be shortly, the batteries we need. Right now, with my fuel-efficient car, it takes me two tanks of gasoline (petrol) to make my trip each year since I can go around 500 miles on a full tank. We should within the next few years have batteries that can exceed that range. What we lack is the charging infrastructure to make recharging as easy as refueling is now. The obstacle now is not technology, it is politics.

The other issue that should be a concern to some Americans is that all of the leading work on these vital technologies is happening in other countries. I’m less concerned about that because the problems we face are global, but I find it odd that some American politicians consider technology from China to be a security threat, yet seem to have no interest in developing the technology here.

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