With Cars Going Electric, There's This Roadblock: The Battery
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technology, however, is still inadequate.
If we want to switch to green power, that is electricity generated from clean sources solar, wind and perhaps, wave power then we need to improve on its transmission to consuming centers as well as develop a means of storing power until it is needed. From a generating perspective, both solar and wind power are either intermittent or limited by daylight and location. They are also handicapped since the most ideal locations for generating
electricity from the sun or the wind are not close to population or industrial centers.
Thanks to rising fuel prices, as well as the threat of “peak oil,” and for many, the fear of the consequences of global warming, we have already seen many innovations in the design and manufacture of new cars and trucks. In the rush to reduce our dependence on imported fuels, and win presidential primaries, Congress encouraged and subsidized ethanol production, but neither it nor any other of the proposed agrofuels offer an effective solution for a clean, cheap and efficient fuel, and all have negative side effects.
While hybrids have made major inroads in the automobile market, it looks like plug-in hybrids (PHEVs) or all-electric cars (EVs) may have a brighter future, banning any major breakthroughs in hydrogen cells or other biofuels. In the case of hybrids, they are certainly more fuel-efficient and reduce carbon emissions, but most current models are expensive – two power sources instead of one engine -- and given the economic downturn, are less affordable.
Most hybrids and all-electric vehicles, however, are limited to 40 miles on purely electric power. The current nickel-metal-hybrid batteries are large, heavy and expensive, and require a long time to charge. At this point, the future of both PHEVs and all-electric cars is increasingly more positive, however, given that most Americans drive less than 40 miles a day and the advertised models could be recharged off home electrical outlets. When residential power is generated from wind or solar power, this would greatly reduce fuel consumption and emissions and would reduce the cost of electricity or fuel for homeowners.
The next step, therefore, is to create an emissions-free car which could travel longer distances on electric power while reducing the costs of operation. While this would mean consuming more electricity, the demand for which increases annually, the major drawback is the limited storage capacity of current batteries.
Although the Toyota Prius uses a large, heavy nickel-metal-hydride battery to store power on board, it now appears that the ubiquitous lithium-ion battery (LED) used in cell phones and computers may provide the solution. Numerous firms, therefore, are already investing in what they anticipate to be a lucrative market for lithium-ion batteries for the latest PHEVs, the first of which may hit the market in 2009.
The advantages of lithium-ion batteries are that they are much lighter than the current nickel-metal-hydride batteries and are unaffected by the memory effect, in which a battery loses its capacity when it is recharged without being fully depleted. Though lithium-ion batteries are currently more expensive than nickel versions, it is estimated that lithium batteries will become cheaper, once they are mass produced.
However, lithium-ion batteries can be unstable when overheated or punctured, causing cellphones or computers to burst into flames -- what engineers call "thermal runaway”, a problem that would be compounded by the much greater size of an automobile battery or the danger of an explosion caused by a collision.
Since it also takes time to recharge both lithium-ion and nickel batteries, thereby limiting the range of a PHEV or hybrid, the research emphasis has been on eliminating the danger of overheating and reducing the time required to recharge them. Since the early 1990s, researchers have tried different combinations of metals in order to increase the performance of lithium-ion batteries, as well as reducing their costs.
Though the perfect battery technology for use in cars and trucks is still evolving, Toyota, GM, Ford, Nissan and Daimler have all announced that they will produce and sell PHEVs and all-electric cars by 2010. Since each is developing its own technology or in joint ventures with other firms, it is not known what system or battery will be used in these cars. Though there is some uncertainty about all these plans because of the economy, in all likelihood they will employ some version of a lithium-ion battery pack.
Revolutionary Breakthrough at MIT?
Recently, researchers at MIT may have come up with a major breakthrough in terms of reducing the time required to recharge lithium-ion batteries. Using lithium-maganese oxide, which is more stable and safer than the lithium-cobalt oxide used in cell phones and computers, MIT researchers have modified the structure so that it can be recharged in 10 minutes -- ten times faster than current batteries. Although the production process of the new battery is expensive, it combines nickel and manganese, which are cheaper than cobalt, and have the potential for multiple uses beside electric or plug-in hybrid cars. While more research and testing is required to make it commercially viable, this lithium-nickel-manganese amalgam may be the breakthrough we have been waiting for.
Who has the Lithium?
If the future of storage batteries, at least for cars and trucks, is in some variation of the lithium battery, the demand for that material will obviously increase, and the major sources, Bolivia, Chile and China, may experience economic booms. While China will probably become a major producer of new lithium based batteries, neither Chile or Bolivia have that potential.
In the case of Bolivia, which has almost half of the world’s deposits of lithium locked up in its salt deserts, President Morales has already nationalized foreign-owned sectors and passed a nationalistic constitution to benefit the majority indigenous population. Since their constitution says that the Indians control the natural resources in their region, they hope to win concessions from foreigners wishing to exploit the lithium deposits. Already Japanese firms and a conglomerate led by a French entrepreneur are seeking mining leases.
Negotiating access to these deposits, therefore, may require some careful diplomacy and contracts beneficial to all Bolivians, thereby avoiding past experiences of intrigue, bribes and covert action. Meanwhile, the government agency which oversees mining projects is planning its own plant to process powder-white lithium into carbonite for use in batteries. As in their estimates of oil reserves, geologists also disagree in their estimates of global lithium deposits.
Because the stakes are so high, and the potential so great, the development of safer, cheaper and more efficient batteries will not lack investors or technicians. Since the decision of GM to abandon its all electric car a decade ago, and the failure of Detroit to innovate, Asia not only led the development of hybrid cars, but also managed to capture the market for batteries. It leads in advanced battery technology. While the federal government and some states offer tax credits for purchasing hybrids or installing solar or wind power equipment, they should also actively support the research and development of new battery technology in government or private labs. If not, the United States will simply exchange its dependence for energy from one set of countries to another.
Although the emphasis seems to be on developing more efficient batteries for automobiles, if we are to switch to renewable sources of power, there is also an urgent need to develop storage capacities for wind and solar power, given the gap between hours of peak production and peak consumption. Since size and weight are not important factors, public utilities are experimenting with truck-trailer size sodium-sulfur batteries for giant wind or solar installations. To take homes or even small businesses off the grid, new, smaller and cheaper storage batteries are also needed.
In spite of the delays in developing new battery technology, thanks in part to the laws of physics and chemistry, battery technology is improving. Investment capital has been flowing into firms specializing in the research and development of more efficient storage batteries and there are encouraging signs of breakthroughs. The hybrid/electric car market alone offers tremendous potential for growth. Since there is an estimated $71 billion global battery market, major firms like GE and Exxon Mobil are also investing in battery development.
Given the stakes, in terms of geopolitics, climate change and profit, it seems, therefore, it will not be for the lack of investment or effort should the development of new advanced battery technology not be forthcoming. Its realization will not only revolutionize energy generation and use, but also potentially change our society and economy, and bring about a significant reduction in carbon emissions.
- Tony White