A recent story published by CNNMoney.com claims that lithium batteries are improving twofold every five years and that the oil industry is spreading nasty rumors to stop the inevitable rise of this powerful new technology.
The article, titled, “Don’t believe a word about the coming lithium shortage,” isn’t the first to make such claims. For many years, battery makers have compared the advancement of their products to those of electronics industry.
The CNN article quotes Shai Agassi, CEO of Better Place, as saying, “Every five years, you need half as much lithium to create the same battery.” It then goes on to describe the doubling phenomenon as “a pattern of advancement that echoes Moore’s Law for transistors.” But the CNN article also goes a step further, saying that electric skeptics are trying to undermine the efforts of battery makers by arguing that there will be a shortage of lithium in a few years. “That was one of the biggest myths perpetuated by the oil guys,” Agassi is quoted as saying.
The problem with such neat and simple scenarios is that they are fundamentally misleading. Yes, American consumers would love to believe that EV battery technology is improving twofold every five years. But let’s consider that for minute: In 1998, Design News reported that the energy density in the Nissan Altra EV’s lithium-ion battery was 90 Wh/kg. But when the Nissan Leaf rolls out in December (12 years later), it will use a lithium-ion battery rated at 140 Wh/kg – an impressive feat, but a far cry from where it would be if we were seeing “Moore’s Law” type of improvements.
The bizarre twist in the CNN article, though, is the image of the oil industry trying to de-rail EV battery makers by spreading nasty rumors. Imagine that: Battery technology is supposedly improving twofold every five years and the battery industry is worried about…a crazy rumor? The entire scenario is tailor-made for conspiracy theorists, many of whom must surely be licking their chops at the thought of another worldwide dilemma caused by the “oil guys.”
The truth is that electric car batteries will succeed or fail on the basis of their cost and energy. Over the years, battery experts have repeatedly warned that battery improvement will be steady but unspectacular. “You’re not going to see a Moore’s Law kind of reduction (in cost),” notes Donald Sadoway, professor of materials chemistry at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “There are certain safety features that have to go into a car battery that you can’t do without.”
Recently, even Bill Gates made a point of telling consumers that “we’ve all been spoiled and deeply confused” by the success of the electronics industry. “There are deep physical limits,” he said, referring to battery development. “I am funding five battery start-ups and there are probably 50 out there. (But) that is a very tough problem.”
Despite what the conspiracy theorists say, this country wants battery makers to succeed. That’s why taxpayers are forking out billions of dollars for the development and sale of EVs.
When EV battery technology is ready for the masses, no rumor in the world will de-rail it.