Of all the factors needed for electric vehicles to come into full acceptance, many agree improvements in battery technology are up there, at or near the top.
While early adopters are willing to accept range limits, first-generation pricing and recharging times of several hours or longer, many would-be consumers are waiting for more.
Will they get it? What is reasonable to expect?
To hear from someone with much more than average knowledge, we spoke yesterday with Haresh Kamath, a senior project manager for the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI).
As an independent, non-profit R&D organization, the U.S.-based EPRI says its members include 90 percent of America’s electricity producers, and in all, participation comes from 40 countries.
To allow the car to travel much farther than present-day EVs, Chevrolet built the Volt with a range-extending gasoline generator. What would it be like in the not-too-distant future if GM were able to build an all-electric Volt that that needed no engine to go just as far?
Kamath, who is actively involved in battery research, was kind enough to answer our questions, and to do so took time away from his attendance at the ongoing 28th International Battery Seminar & Exhibit in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.
His perspective may be one to consider next time you read a blurb selling the sizzle from a tech company dangling the possibility of several-times multiplied energy density in the next few years.
“I would be careful about putting a time line on that figure,” Kamath said while offering a more conservative estimate, “What we do know is in probably in the next 10 years or so we will probably get at least a two times increase in energy density.”
Among the most significant sectors pushing for improved batteries, he said, are consumer electronics, transportation, and power stations with energy storage needs.
“Transportation gets a very high priority,” Kamath said, “The projections are that the transportation market will eclipse the consumer electric market by 2020; many people believe this is the case.”
Presently, lithium-ion (li-ion) batteries – as found in the Volt and all other modern EVs – have shuffled out to be the technology of choice.
How much more can li-ion batteries be improved, and will they remain the battery of choice?
“In the short term lithium-ion looks like it is going to be the winner,” Kamath said.
To further clarify, he said li-ion derivatives are numerous, and the technology should be thought of more as a “family” of batteries than a “type.”
There are at least 6-8 competitive variations of the li-ion battery, if not more, he said.
At present, there is an ongoing shake-out ramping up to an unprecedented scale.
Manufacturers in all sectors are working on ways to improve them.
Scientists are vying to be the one to put their name on the next great technological leap forward.
At the same time, efficiencies are expected to grow over the next 4-5 years, Kamath said, through a combination of scale, production learning curves, trial and error with designs, and improvements in technology.
This should help drive down cost, improve profitability, or both.
Kamath said some of the most critical factors battery manufacturers are contending with – more or less in order – are: 1) cost, 2) life, 3) range, and, 4) recharging time.
Naturally, the people working on solutions will take their gains anywhere they can, but these are the top priorities.
While attempting to streamline li-ion formulations, every manufacturer is working to improve its proprietary discoveries.
Other chemistries with longer-term development possibilities mentioned were lithium sulfur and lithium air, as well as, zinc air and silicon anode technology.
But again, no new battery technology is ready for prime time, and no one has shown they can accurately predict when one will be ready, or who would be first to make it so.
One could guess that it might be a well-known company like LG Chem, or A123 Systems, or it could just as likely be a smaller firm.
If a smaller start-up did invent The Next Big Thing, Kamath said, it would probably seek to license it to several buyers.
“If there were technologies substantially better than the rest,” Kamath said, “they will spread around quite a bit faster than you might expect.”
The industry’s state of competitiveness, and need to keep up with increasing demand is that compelling, he said.
While refusing to name potential companies that might come out ahead in the tech race, Kamath only said it is open to anyone’s speculation, and he would hedge his guesses.
“I would not put all my money in one or two technologies,” he said, but rather the smart players are placing “multiple bets,” and even in-house, companies are running competing projects.
Regarding the transportation sector, in the near term, it has been said that insulated and actively climate-controlled EV batteries could be streamlined as a way to cut costs.
As many are already aware, batteries work best at moderate temperatures.
To this, Kamath added that some chemistries may eventually prove better in varying temperatures, or under different load demands.
In time, he said, some chemistries may be optimized for warmer climates, and others chosen for where conditions are colder.
Similarly, some chemistries will be shown to work better for high-performance applications, such as in a sports car, while others will work better for a truck.
The whole development process is a series of multiple trade-offs, he said, and now is a time of rapid learning.
Engineering decisions will in time refine end results, he said, and these will not necessarily be perceived by the customer who only wants to know whether the design works as intended or not.
Since autos potentially must endure all climates, we would take from this that unless a climate-tolerant chemistry could ever be developed, their batteries should remain actively climate controlled, as is the case with the Volt and Ford’s pending all-electric Focus.
Present chemistries are adversely affected by extreme cold and heat, and this naturally will affect ability to accept a charge, available range, and expected life.
At the same time, climate-controlled batteries magnify development and engineering costs, and to an extent, add weight and complexity.
While for now consumer electronics exceed the demands of the transportation sector, they also are seen as a first place to try new battery technologies.
Kamath made sure to say safety concerns are real for electronics, but they are not as severe as they are for vehicles meant to carry people.
Perhaps you have heard of “thermal runaway” cases where laptop batteries caught fire? This is a scenario the transportation industry cannot afford to ever let happen.
But once proven safe and better in smaller, less expensive, shorter-lived products, Kamath said improved batteries may find their way from electronics to cars and trucks – maybe, we will add, one you could drive some day in the not-too-distant future.
This entry was posted on Wednesday, March 16th, 2011 at 5:55 am and is filed under General. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.