Batteries: They Make EVs Go ... But It’s Not as Simple as It Seems


By: SGN Staff

By Doug Peeples

SGN News Editor


There's no way around it: Electric vehicles are coming. It's just that what makes them go â€" batteries â€" are the rabbit in a horse race. It looks like lithium-ion has a long lead on the other technologies, but it's a confusing and controversial race.


Global management consulting firm PRTM notes that cutting the cost of lithium-ion battery production "has been broadly discussed as the key enabler for electric vehicles (EVs) to become viable as mass market vehicles in the coming years. It is widely expected that battery costs will need to come down by more than 50% before the total cost of ownership of EVs will approach that of an internal combustion engine."


PRTM says no major breakthroughs are needed, just optimized design and operations in production/manufacturing, supply chain and product development to make it happen.


The Electrification Coalition, in its Electrification Roadmap, says we're in trouble if we don't get busy and replace oil with electricity as our primary fuel for transportation. "This heavy reliance on petroleum has created unsustainable risks to American economic and national security," it states.


Convincing, but not everyone agrees. The Boston Consulting Group counters that without a major breakthrough in battery technologies, the more complex and stronger batteries needed to push a car won't meet manufacturing cost targets. In other words, people won't buy the cars because the batteries cost too much.


And while Toyota is the biggest maker of hybrids, it's taken a dim view of plug-in hybrids (PHEVs) and EVs. When asked by the New York Times recently if current technology could support longer-range EVs, Koei Saga, Toyota's managing officer, said the only way it could happen is "if we forget about battery life and if we forget about the cost incurred for replacement of those batteries."


Not exactly a consensus.

Are Batteries Really That Big a Deal in the Whole Equation?

Yes, they are. DOE has dropped about $2.4 billion on advanced battery manufacturing and evaluation. Major battery manufacturers like EnerDel, A123 Systems, car makers and others are dropping billions of their own and government money on batteries. It's a global phenomenon.


And while the lithium-ion battery has its drawbacks, it is the technological darling, at least for the moment. It's extremely light and has high energy density (a fancy way of saying you can pack a lot of electricity into it).


There are several technologies within the umbrella of lithium-ion battery technologies, meaning they have different capabilities and characteristics, which adds a lot of confusion to the game. Some chemistries are pretty safe. Others have volatile chemistries, as in they might blow up if you don't treat them just right.


Yet other companies say they are working on completely different technologies that can beat the pants off lithium-ion for energy density and cost.


But in the end, lithium-ion batteries are on the road and in most of the EVs in the showrooms now or expected to show up later this year. Most other technologies don't actually have a prototype to play with yet.


And lithium-ion batteries may get a chance at a secondary use after they've outlived their usefulness as car batteries. Even though they may no longer be able to handle the demands of powering an EV, a number of companies are betting they can be used in a less demanding role as stationary backup storage for the electric grid during times of peak demand or outages. And yes, a secondary market would make the batteries cheaper.


What's the Big Picture?

It looks like lithium-ion is the technology to bet on, for now. But considering the billions poured into R&D, manufacturing and evaluation worldwide for new technologies, we think this horse race is far from over.


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