Kind of a sobering post, Chuck, but very enlightening. Based on what you outlined, it seems likely that refining Li-ion batteries and cooling system designs are likely only to deliver incremental benefits in terms of lowering costs--not nearly enough to move the bar in terms of sparking sales. As far as developing alternatives to Li-ion batteries, that seems like a long way off. It would be a shame to lose ground given how far we've come in the last five years in terms of wannabe acceptance of the EV as a mainstream vehicle.
I agree, Beth, that it would be a shame to lose the momentum that the EV market has gained in the past five years. In the long run, though, I think the momentum won't be completely lost. I believe we'll see that momentum swing to hybrids and plug-in hybrids, which can use smaller lithium-ion batteries that inherently cost less. If we're going to continue publicly pushing pure EVs, it might be better for us to direct our efforts toward battery research. I don't believe we'll ever see a battery that can compete with the energy and cost characteristics of gasoline in our lifetimes, but if we could create a battery that could meet the old $100/kWh target, it would go a long way toward bringing pure EVs to the masses.
You don't need $100/kwhr lithium batteries to make EV's cost effective. It can be done several ways.
Before that one needs to think cost/mile instead of $/kwhr. Lead which is prefectly viable for 100 mile range EV's like the EV-1 or better, it's prototype, the Impact EV, costs OEM's about $80/kwhr.
But one needs a new pack every 4-6 yrs. Now many Lithium types go far more cycles plus their 33% of the weight means $200/kwhr lithium batts will do fine.
No EV if not designed right isn't going to work and present ones are overweight and oversized. EV's should start out as lightweight commuters/errand running, delivery, etc as everyone gets use to them. So what do we get, 4-5 passenger cars.
Now in my EV sportwagon the Volt 40 mile range battery pack would run it about 200 miles!! The Nissan Leaf's, 300 miles. It's not the battery as much as what you put it in.
If the GM Impact or it's Ultralite showcar had been produced with lithium they would have 200-300 mile ranges. Or much less costly 100 mile EV's.
Next Lithium batts are already dropping and retail price on Tesla style cells is under $250/kwhr. That proves the materials cost no more than that, about 50% or so. Or do you think they sell them at a loss? Let's look at the materials. 95% of lithium batteries are made mostly of plastic, copper, alum, 2lbs/kwhr lithium carbonate, sulfur, iron, magnesium, water in the viable types. Average price for these is about $4/lb at 22lbs/kwhr IIRC. Now just what is so expensive about them? Most under $2/lb.
Folks it takes time to introduce new tech. It took them 40 yrs after they said they were going to produce EV's to finally do it. And the next gas crisis will focus people's minds.
Many good comments by various folks! Here are my responses to a few:
Alexander: fuel cells are still ridiculously far from being a cost-effective automotive power source (using ANY fuel, but hydrogen is easiest to implement as far as fuel cells go). They are also still very low power density - so they need to be large if you want realistic horsepower. I think we will see some applications in fixed installations long before any automotive applications.
Jerry: I agree completely - while a "miracle" breakthrough battery would be nice...there are many things that can be done to reduce the energy needed to move the car and therefore make it easier to have a practical and cost-effective EV. see: http://www.edison2.com/blog/month/january-2012 These guys won the "automotive X-Prize" usign an ethanol burning engine...but now have an interesting prototype EV version. 114 mile range on 10.5 KWh's. However, I'll also point out that the low weight and drag of their design also gives awesome performance using fuel-burning engines too.
After researching all the related issues deeply, I find myself scratching my head about what problem the EV zealots think they are solving. First, modern engines are more efficient than most articles say - the Prius is ~38% efficient, and future versions will certainly acheive over 40%. That is higher efficiency than the average coal power plant, and in fact higher than the USA average grid efficiency (coal & natural gas to electricity conversion). The "elephant in the closet" is that EV's do not save energy vs. fuel burning cars (although they do shift from oil fuel to coal+natural gas).
A much more practical solution is to create a liquid synthetic fuel that will supercede gasoline, but leverage all the existing infastructure and vehicle technology. In the short-term, this could be synthesized from coal and natural gas (cut out the "middle man" of the power plants). Longer-term, solar-synthesized fuels or biofuels would create a renewable fuel that has all the conveniences of gasoline without the huge trade-offs of EV's.
The plethora of ongoing engineering challenges with electric vehicles -- specifically, the cost of batteries (as discussed in this article) and their apparent vulnerability to fires) -- makes me wonder why fuel-cell vehicles are completely off the table. Only two years ago, Honda and several other automakers demoed hydrogen fuel-cell cars at major auto shows. These are ready to go; the big impediment is a complete lack of infrastructure. I still don't get why these vehicles have been ignored. It's a workable, safe technology. Maybe the word "hydrogen" scares people.
There's no doubt that the word "hydrogen" has a fear factor associated with it. But experts have pointed to additional issues with hydrogen fuel cells. At a recent UBM-sponsored panel discussion at the Embedded Systems Conference, experts cited three issues with fuel cells: outgassing, storage and infrastructure. But I think much of the problem comes down to this: In a sense, we've all been spoiled. Gasoline-burning cars are marvelous machines and they've raised our expectations so high that it's difficult for any new technology to come in and match up. Automakers are now tasked with satisfying incredibly high consumer expectations. If they don't build reliable machines, they'll be rightfully flooded with complaints from people who've invested $30K or $40K in their shiny new vehicles.
My opinion exactly... Were people able to consider the electric car on a par with post WWII tech, at the start of post war competition and population mobilty, comparing electric would be easier.. Also Moores law in electronics raises expectations for improvments in other technologies unrealistically. AS for battery weight, I would gladly trade my 1264 pound lead acid pack in for a 600 pound lithium pack if it didn't mean handing over my $10 K to a foriegn government's company. Having converted rather recently, in 2003, never to turn back to gas, it's harder every day to understand why the US is still clinging to such a 20th century technology. Imagine YOUR laptop on AAA batteries!
@Alexander Wolfe: The days of throwing huge sums of money at fuel cell research pretty much ended with the Bush Administration. Besides the issues which Charles cites, there is the larger issue of where to get hydrogen from. It may be the most abundant element in the universe, but here on earth, it's mostly tied up in water and hydrocarbons. If you want to separate the hydrogen from these compounds, you need to put energy in. Where do you get that energy from?
At best, hydrogen is an energy storage medium, not an energy source. And as an energy storage medium, its energy density is much less than that of batteries.
You're absolutely correct that most of the safety concerns about hydrogen are unfounded. However, that doesn't mean the technology makes sense.
I did some work on hydrogen fuel cell technology for the Department of Energy as an undergraduate. It was very interesting from a materials engineering point of view -- and it was inspiring to feel like I was helping to lay the groundwork for an energy revolution which would someday break our dependence on carbon-based fuels. However, the more I learned, the more skeptical I became that hydrogen will ever be either environmentally sustainable or economically viable.
A couple years later, I worked briefly for a professor who was building a hydrogen-powered lawnmower as a demonstration project for a major city's parks department. He kicked me off the project after I asked too many "big picture" questions which he couldn't answer.
Good comments, Dave. Interesting how promising technology changes when you move it from the lab and into production. In your case, I guess it didn't look like promising technology even when it was in the lab.
I agree, Rob. Battery technologies have been notorious for looking good in the lab but not as good in production. I started covering electric cars in '88, and back then every battery looked great in the lab. Virtually every battery maker promised to bring vehicle range up to 300 miles and cost down to $100/kWh. One academic said that it was like being in "a liar's contest. Whoever told the biggest whopper got the most money." But for two decade now, these technologies have never quite realized their promise when they leave the lab.
With all of the press about EVs, I had the impression that technology was sound and that EVs were the future. It seemed it was just a matter of scale and volume before prices would come down to a level that would make these vehicles affordable. Your recent articles are penetrating that myth a bit, Chuck.
As I sit alone, late at night hiding behind my pseudonym and reading about batteries and safety, a couple of thoughts cross mind.
1. What are the NH-TSAs doing? Do they just look at dents and crash dummy damage? I would expect that they [if they were a company in the private sector] would perform some level of 'autopsy' after a crash test - especially if it involved a 'not very common technology' like battery power.
2. 'Instant gratification types' and 'academians' are always whining about the lack of infrastructure when something a little different might come to market. That would be nice and make for quick adoption, but it is contrary to the mass deployment of any new product that comes to mind. What was the infrastructure when the first automobiles were being sold? Or when the first mobile phones and cable TV service were sold in the 1940s?
mellowfellow, I agree with your statement in regards to the NHTSA post testing procedure. In the event that I had a crash that totalled the rear end of my car and it was leaking gasoline, I would surely immediately have the tank repaired or removed to stop the potential fire hazzard. I would not wait three weeks without doing anything.
Mellow, the problem of early adoption does not seem the same now as it was then.
Take light bulbs. The Edison Screw is by far the most widely accepted. Even new CFL bulbs are using this century old design. There were competing designs (and still are), but the lead early adopter pushed his design into the de-facto standard.
Gasoline nozzles are the same way. Petroleum companies early on saw the BENEFIT of commonality; they could push more of their product if all vehicles had the same receptacle.
Today, there's not many instances where an innovator make such a leap that nearly everyone sees the benefit of following the de-facto standard. Companies see an opportunity to create their own "standard" hoping more people will follow them than the competition. VHS vs. Betamax, Blu-Ray vs. HD-DVD are good examples where competition caused early adoption grief.
Consumer battery sizes (AA, AAA, C, D) are all over a century old, though the sizes were formally ratified as ANSI standards in the USA in the 40s and 50s.
It's not a matter of "something a little different". If producers would be willing to standardize even a little bit, the infrastructure problems would be much less.
I believe that the issue here is weigth. There are other options in lithium ion technology, like Lithium Iron Phosphate, but they have 70 to 80% of the cappacity of the usual Lithium-Cobalt batteries. They are a lot safer, withstanding higher temperatures, and they do not burst in flames when short circuited. But the weight kills them for use in cars. They are very common in light vehicles, like bikes or motorcycles. Maybe it's a question of time...
Gasoline, and battery packs both represent stored energy, which must somehow be rendered 'safe' in a crash. Amazing strides have been made in gasoline technology, yet firery car crashes still occur. There will be similar occurances with battery technology. The question is, how safe is safe. Will we accept one fire in a hundred, a thousand, or a million or more crashes ?
A protocol needs to be established to drain the charge from damaged battery packs, just as capacitors are discharged to return them to safe voltage levels.
Yes, there's still a fear factor associated with hydrogen. I still remember the Hindenburg and the hydrogen bombs used in Japan. Hydrogen still carries the fear factor people still carry about nuclear power. It's going to blowup and destroy us all.
Perception and related actions are an interesting thing. As long as these things continue to be bigger than life and out of proportion in our minds, use is going to be limited.
I find it interesting how the human mind finds it acceptable and doesn't impact our behaviors when 18,000 people are killed by drunk drivers and 100,000 people are killed because of incorrect hospital drug dispensing or contracted infections each year and they readily drive to hospital visits, but when a couple of batteries catch fire in a controlled crash test, or a dozen floor mats get stuck under an accelerator peddle, we refuse to buy that car.
@jhankwitz: Actually, neither of the bombs dropped on Japan during World War II was a hydrogen bomb. The first hydrogen bomb (the Teller-Ulam design) was tested by the U.S. in 1952. And the fusion fuel used in hydrogen bombs is either deuterium or tritium (or a mixture of the two), rather than ordinary hydrogen.
As far as the Hindenberg disaster (which I think more people today remember from the cover of the first Led Zeppelin album rather than the actual event, which took place in 1937), there has been debate about the exact role which hydrogen played.
That being said, you're right that perception and reality are often two different things. This is particularly true when it comes to safety and risk. Studies have repeatedly shown that our brains react much more strongly to unfamiliar risks than to familar risks, even if the familar event is much more likely. A now-classic example is the decision of many people to drive rather than flying after the September 11 attacks. Since driving is actually much more dangerous than flying, it's believed that this may have lead to about 1000 additional fatalities.
In any case, the same thing which makes hydrogen relatively safe also makes it a relatively poor fuel: its energy density is low compared to batteries, and especially compared to gasoline.
There are many Li-ion chemistries. The various chemistries have widely ranging properties including inherent safety. Some have known issues with safety and some don't. The ones that do have issues tend to be those that can store the most energy and are tricky to charge quickly. People that use them also tend to run the cells from 80% charged to 20% charged to avoid either overcharge or undercharge which can shorten life or ruin the battery.
The Li-ion chemistries that don't have safety issues tend to not store nearly as much energy but can be charged and discharged extremely quickly and can be run from full charge to full discharge.
Chevy went with a chemistry that had safety issues.
So when reporting always specify the Li-ion chemistry involved so that the whole technology doesn't get a bad rep because of a few.
And I'm old enough to remember the Pinto gas tank problem. Gasoline is extremely dangerous and all that stands between safety and disaster is a fraction of a millimeter of steel or a couple millimeters of plastic. A friend of mine lost a daughter when someone T-boned his station wagon and the gas incinerated her.
The biggest issue with the chemistry that Chevy is using is to predict the delayed reaction.
And the other more imminent issue with battery power is training emergency responders in dealing with the potentially deadly orange wires after a crash.
Take a look at that picture of a Li-Ion battery pack and then visualize a gas tank. That alone should kill any fantasy about batteries being a substitute for combustible liquids. In terms of motive power, the Chevy Volt's battery pack is equal to about ONE gallon of gasoline, and look at all the complexity it takes to make it even that good. I might also add that a gas tank doesn't wear out, and is trivial to recycle.
In defense of battery packs, though, the real standard of crash safety should be whether they're as safe as gas tanks. If they don't cause dangerous fires any more readily than 20 gallons of gas, that should be good enough. I realize that we live in a litigious society and anything new and mildly dangerous is bound to attract lawsuits that things that are old and highly dangerous never would. If electricity and gasoline were invented today, the public would never be allowed access to either of them.
I think Chuck's earlier comment about gasoline-powered vehicles' performance giving us higher expectations, combined with visualeyes' comment about higher expectations that Moore's Law has given us in all technologies, are worth thinking about. I've always found it interesting that many have treated Moore's Law not as the simple observation it originally was when Moore made it, but as a prediction and even a prescription about what we should do with technology and what it should do for us.
The comments about Moore's Law are right on the money. Consider this comment by Bill Gates in 2010 about batteries: "They haven't improved hardly at all. There are deep physical limits. I am funding five battery start-ups and there are probably 50 out there. (But) that is a very tough problem. It may not be solvable in any sort of economic way." See the article, "We've been spoiled by Moore's Law," here: http://news.cnet.com/8301-13860_3-20013064-56.html
Chuck, thanks for the link to Gates' talk on Moore's "Law" (Moore himself said it was only an observation). Aside from pointing out how we have misunderstood Moore's statement, Gates also mentions briefly that batteries have "deep physical limits" to improvement, and that the problem may not be economically solvable. I just hope throwing lots of money at it in 50 different startups may result in something useful.
That's a really good point, Ann. If we're going to make a competitive vehicle battery, we're going to need a "battery miracle," as Gates has said. And I think the only way we'll get there is to heavily fund forward-thinking battery research. This is a really sticky, difficult problem and I don't believe it will get solved without a concerted effort.
Gates' comments go right to the heart of one of the great misconceptions about pure electric cars. Comparisons to PCs and cell phones are rampant in EV discussions, even though they are irrelevant. A GM vice president even made the allusion to cell phones in 2010, saying: "Remember when mobile phones fit in a brief case, weighed 40 pounds and were affordable only to the wealthy?” He went on to say that EVs would follow a development track similar to that of cell phones.
We all know that current battery tech is not good enough for EV built for masses. It remains to be seen whether battery innovations can change that.
One thing that fuel cell discussion typically does not mention is fuel cells using gasoline as their energy source. Gasoline fuel cells (GFC) should raise the MPG of typical car by 2x or 3x. Of course that will not be zero pollution, but those could lower the emissions without needing any infrastructure changes, since they would be using the same old gasoline, just less per each mile. Now the important question will be what would be the price of such GFC and what weaknesses would those have, assuming affordable GFC.
I think GFC would give a way to improve MPG while we wait that E-CAT comes to cars and gives us zero tailpipe emissions.
No the question with gasoline fuel cells is "How do you make one?" Anti-gravity machines and Star Trek transporters would reduce fuel consumption as well, and they're no harder to build than a gasoline fuel cell.
The main problem as I understand it with fuel cells is what to do with the carbon. There is no way to "burn" carbon in a fuel cell without it getting sooted up. Methane fuel cells work because they're part of an overall process in which the energy content of the carbon is used to separate hydrogen from the methane and feed the hydrogen to the fuel cell. The overall inefficiency of this is obvious, as is the impracticality of having both a "reformer" and a fuel cell in the same engine compartment. And that's for the simplest and most hydrogen-rich hydrocarbon in existence. Gasoline is a far more complex mix of hydrocarbons that react differently. Get them hot enough in the presence of an excess of oxygen and they will all burn, which is why fuel-burning engines are practical. But try to devise a fuel cell that will handle this stew of hydrocarboms and the Star Trek transporter starts looking like a more practical way to spend your design time.
This discussion of EV batteries reminds me of the years it took to get portable consumer electronics batteries to function longer than a few minutes in a laptop or other device running multiple apps.
Actually, that problem still hasn't been solved, as I learned all over again last week when the Great California Power Outage left me writing on a laptop, switching batteries and barely enough time to write and file my story before deadline.
Batteries are not a technology I'm familiar with. Why is it so hard to get ones that last long enough, whether for laptops or for EVs? What's the big deal?
We really need a chemist or metallurgist to answer your question properly, Ann, but a battery's performance is based on the inherent energy and electrochemical properties of the materials that are used. Through the history of the battery there's been zinc, lead, iron, nickel, carbon, sulfur, lithium, manganese and on and on and on, used in various combinations in an effort to produce more energy, more power, longer life, lower cost, greater safety, etc. Usually, battery makers trade for one or two of those properties at the expense of another. For most batteries, development of the chemistry can take 20 or more years in the lab. Lithium-ion, for example, has been out since the early 1990s, but spent 20 years in the lab prior to that. Over the last 20 years, the EV market has changed chemistries repeatedly, going from lead-acid to nickel-iron to sodium-sulfur to advanced lead-acid to nickel-metal hydride to lithium-ion, etc. The point is, when we talk about battery energy, we're talking about inherent material characteristics, and improving the energy means finding the right chemistry. To draw a contrast, the electronics industry has advanced in leaps and bounds over the last 60 years while it has pretty much used just one material: silicon. The advancements have largely been a product of manufacturing. As the manufacturing has improved, transistor feature sizes shrank and performance rose. But it's pretty much all been in silicon.
Thanks, Chuck, that makes things a lot clearer. So it sounds like the process of making batteries, or at least high-performing ones, is a question of first defining your acceptable tradeoffs among safety, energy, power, lifetime, and cost, and then finding the right delicate balances of many different chemical interactions among many different materials. Compared to silicon, that does sound like a breeze. OTOH, while covering materials for chip packaging and board substrates for Nikkei Electronics Asia, I learned that there are actually a lot more materials besides silicon to consider and that such things as different CTEs can really mess everything up. Most of that concerned physics and mechanical mismatches, though, not chemical ones. Batteries sound pretty gnarly.
Ann: Indeed, changes in materials really have historially messed things up for electronics manufacturers. Consider the great Seymour Cray: He believed he could get past all the technical difficulties associated with gallium arsenide and build supercomputers with it. If anyone could have done it, it would have been him. But he's gone (unfortunately) and silicon is still the material of choice.
Chuck, I remember GaAs. It was the material of choice for not only Cray processors but some really high-speed networking chips way back when only huge companies could afford them, and could afford the associated cost. Although it didn't win out as the material of choice, I think it helped spur forward-thinking innovation of the type you mention by showing that at least those speeds were possible, and forming a competitive alternative.
Silicon has won out over several other materials for various specialty chips, most lately active PV solar cell wafers, primarily because it's so cheap and abundant, and because it got there first in manufacturing, that chip makers have been highly motivated to make it keep working so they can keep getting ROI for their enormous fab cost outlays.
Battery materials, OTOH, appear to be so complicated and diverse that I don't think this model applies. It sounds like many different approaches need a lot of money and innovative thinking thrown at them.
The question of money is a really important one. My feeling is that we need more battery research -- lots more. Lithium-ion has an energy density that's about 1/80th that of gasoline. We don't need to build a battery with an energy density that matches gasoline's, but it would be nice to get closer. And that isn't going to happen by tweaking lithium-ion. The only real answer that I can see is research.
Actually, lithium-ion is today's leader, which is why all the automakers are using it. Lithium-sulfur and lithium-air, two long-range contenders, are so far off that not much has been written about them yet. Here's a starting point on the challenges of Lithium-ion.
Chuck, thanks so much for the link. I want to cover this topic more from the materials standpoint, since there seems to be a lot of research going on, and I want to make sure I focus on what's most useful to our readers.
The many popular laptop cars suddenly appearing in the market, One in particular, Tesla, started by eberhardt, then taken in a hostile takeover as found property assumption, is powered by some 800 or so laptop batteries, GM has redesigned the battery pack so that it doesn't heat up resulting in the car creeping along, but the risk of fire still remains, the insurance liabilities, and battery disposal and/or repair represent real environmental problems, and the Green car idea should be reconsidered since electricity in the US is 85 % coal fired power plants. The internal combustion invention, which continues to evolve is here to stay, and will only continue to get better, as gravity is better understood, vertical engineering is growing exponentially, and combustable fuels, like say hydrogen is cheap, abundent, and can be extracted from water on fuel demand, without the hazard, stored hydrogen exposes. Its kinda on a parallel with energy in all consumption realms, regardless of how many wind and hybrid electric grantmasters syphoning away development money, ultimately it will come down to hydrogen-oxy fuels, and the combustion engine, whether from water in the air, or a tank, its the cheapest, atmospheric, fuel source whenever the political scammers time out and scientific development returns to its place in society, where instrumentation defines us, the silly wind turbines, and laptop batteries will have a tiny spot in the energy realm, and guys like barry, and his energy czar chui, will soon hit the road, and we can return to science directed by industrial scientists, without the interference of corrupt disbarred lawyers, and out of country charlatans---One more thing---lets rid ourselves of slavery and piracy in free interprize, returning our factories from the slave countries they were taken to by the NYSE, and shutter the slavers super stores, and take back what they have stolen from the american model of accrued taxation from an economic model based on import taxation to discourage slavery, and protect the american way of life from the other tyrannical governments, and our very own world class mafia seeking to end americas independence as they move onto world class citizenery, leaving us behind, micromanaged by predatory laws, enforcing a communistic society upon us. Leave americans manufacturing infrastructure alone, and allow our small family businesses to provide our communities with goods and services---make in america what america consumes, in an independent country, one nation, under " God " with liberty and justice for all---treat traitors and treasonists for their crimes, take back what the fed has stolen and change with time which changes all things. end the newly formed academic caste systems nobility ordainments, end the chosen 539 electoral college, the supreme court, prison economy, oval office, senate, congress, and their counterparts in city, county, and state realms,--- began to vote with openended referendums while embracing information technology and the empirical matrix to provide us with direction, allow the Military, FBI, CIA, ATF, TSA, etc to do their jobs without the micromanagement of criminality now ruling our lands
The biggest challenge is a bunch of rabid media goons searching for "something they can use". (from "Dirty Laundry" a few years back). Once a car has been crashed, the occupants removed, and the car towed away, vehicle safety is not even an issue, until after the repairs are finished.
The cost of a battery system for a car has to be regarded as a tradeoff against the benefits of having a battery electric powered drive. The problem with the volt is that the benefit did not seem worth the tradeoffs to enough people. A big part of that lack of perceived benefit was due to a media that wanted to have GM fail. There was nothing legal that GM could do to defend themselves.
Of course another big influence is the present economy, which is both depressed and uncertain, two things that will reduce the demand for any expensive car. GM engineers did not have much to do with that problem arriving either.
The ultimate destruction of the electric vehicle in any form would be a poor-quality rip-off copy of anything like the volt, sold by some large low price store that has a reputation for selling poor quality stuff cheap. People in the US can guess who I mean.
As a LEAF owner I am disappointed that zero analysis of the Nissan battery design was mentioned. While Tesla was critical of the LEAF battery cooling system (there isn't one) the choice of keeping a system simple by avoiding the need for cooling and hence the need for coolants not only improves the cost, it also provides an improvement in safety and reliability with a simpler system.
Tesla Motors’ $35,000, 200-mile electric car may not revolutionize the auto industry by itself, but it could serve as a starting point for a long, steady climb to a day when half of the world’s vehicles will be plug-ins.
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