Recent travails in the electric vehicle (EV) market are raising questions about the EV's most important component: the battery.
Of late, there's been a battery fire in a parked Chevy Volt and one in a GM lab. (See: Don't Worry, Your EV Battery Won't Explode.) There has also been a raging debate over a $40,000 bricked Tesla Roadster battery, and there has been a whopping $55 million product recall for A123 Systems.
More importantly, sluggish EV sales are highlighting the shortcomings of today's batteries -- low energy and high cost. After millions of dollars have been invested by government agencies and millions more by private investors, some are asking why EV battery development still seems so excruciatingly slow.
The simple answer: Battery development is hard, slow work. Throwing loads of money at it will help, but it will not make it happen overnight, as so many EV proponents have predicted. "There are no specific moving parts in a battery, but it's one of the most complicated things to develop, in terms of all the things happening inside," Luis Ortiz, chief operating officer of Liquid Metal Battery Corp., told us. "You've got multiple materials trying to come together in one place. It's volatile. And there are a lot of opportunities for things to go wrong." Liquid Metal Battery, an MIT spinoff, builds grid storage systems.
"It's a matter of thermodynamics," said Ralph J. Brodd, president of the battery consulting firm Broddarp of Nevada. "There aren't any things you can just grab off the shelf whenever you want higher energy."
Most of the battery experts that I've interviewed over the years say it's unfair to compare the rapid development of electronics to that of batteries. Electronics have been using the same material (silicon) for more than a half-century. To reduce the feature sizes of their chips, semiconductor manufacturers keep improving their chemical deposition processes and photolithography techniques. Their efforts are essentially a triumph of manufacturing.
In contrast, battery makers are constantly searching for new materials, combining them, testing them, and then waiting for the results. It's a physical sciences challenge. And it's limited by nature. "You're always working with something new, like a cobalt oxide one day and a manganese oxide the next," Brodd said. "You can do anything you want to those materials, but you aren't ever going to get any more energy out of them than the thermodynamics allow."
That's the main reason we're still searching for the ultimate EV battery 100 years after the New York Times declared that the technology had arrived. It's a painstaking process. Battery makers know this, but with venture capital at stake, they often project their capabilities in ways that are part fact, part hope. If they don't, funding may not follow as rapidly. The result is that hopes are raised and then dashed, as they have been over the past few months.
Outside the prescribed boundaries of the battery industry, the general public blames some entity -- auto companies or oil executives -- for suppressing a technology that could change the world. To this day, there's no shortage of individuals who are convinced that GM or Ford has a cheap, high-energy battery wrapped in oily rags in a basement somewhere.
The truth, though, is much more boring. Battery development is just hard, slow work.