Before making your morning coffee, you plug your car in. By the time your brew’s prepared, the car’s charge goes from zero to 100, ready for hundreds of km of you sitting back and being driven to your business meetings. This scenario is an incipient reality stemming from recent battery tech breakthroughs. From electric vehicles (EVs) to smartphones and large-scale storage, adjustments and alternatives to the current leading battery model, lithium-ion (Li-ion), have been gaining traction. Why? Because this stuff is destined to change the world.
What’s on the horizon?
There is a growing list of new technologies that may unlock the future of batteries—some more viable than others. One enhancement to lithium-based batteries is the development of what is known as solid state Li-ion batteries, the most promising of which make use of graphene. This technology provides superior stability, longer storage life, and greatly enhanced charging speeds. Samsung has announced that they are developing a graphenebased battery that has the potential to increase battery capacity by nearly 50% and increase charge speeds by 500%, to around 12 minutes for a full charge. The implications are also promising for the EV market, where graphene batteries could deliver charge-up speeds similar to smartphone and a power range of 500 km. An innovative modification of current lithium batteries utilizes sand instead of graphite to achieve results that are three times better than traditional lithium batteries. Because they use sand, they are also significantly cheaper to produce and are non-toxic and eco-friendly. Another eco-friendly solution is water. Liquid flow batteries use pH neutral water to store energy over long periods of time and can also be used to generate power. A company in Australia is working to create the world’s largest battery using a natural lake and a system of turbines and tunnels. Smartphone makers also see potential in usings this technology for small-scale applications. Sodium-ion batteries are another noteworthy contender. These salt batteries could be up to seven times more efficient than their Li-ion counterpart. While commercialisation is still perhaps a decade away, salt-based batteries could replace lithium batteries completely, as they would be vastly cheaper to produce while offering better performance. Other technologies actively being researched and developed for batteries include photosynthesis, gold nanowires, fuel cells, solar batteries, foam batteries, and wearable batteries.
What’s the situation today?
Already the largest buyer of Li-ion batteries, Tesla is on track to becoming the largest producer thanks to Tesla Gigafactories. The first—in Nevada, USA—will produce Li-ion batteries, of which Tesla needs roughly the equivalent of the current worldwide supply. The factory is a joint project between Tesla and Japan’s Panasonic and by 2020, Tesla hopes for the production of battery packs at less than EUR 80 per kWh. Driving down the cost of Li-ion batteries means incentivizing the use of alternative energy sources, and CEO Elon Musk plans on building many more Gigafactories in the near future. For the proposed Tesla Gigafactory Europe, he has reportedly considered the Czech Republic and Finland, among others. The most well-known battery suppliers include Samsung and LG Chem, but China is right behind. Due to the magnitude of projected demand—a result of the evolving EVs and storage systems—battery cell manufacturing demands have been unprecedented. In the past three years, battery cell manufacturing capacity has more than doubled largely thanks to China’s cell production, which already has a greater share of global production than Japan’s. One worthy adversary can be found right in the Czech Republic: HE3DA Ltd. A self-proclaimed innovator in applied research and commercialization of battery technologies, HE3DA is utilizing the high charge and discharge speed of nanotechnology-based batteries; after numerous tests, researchers found a way to increase battery safety and lower production costs by about 1/20th of the current norm. HE3DA has teamed up with European Metals, which holds exploration rights around the Czech village Cínovec. The place is so rich in lithium that it could amount to about 3% of the global lithium stock, making it Europe’s largest resource. With its close proximity to the border with Germany, long tradition of mining, and high unemployment rate, it has attracted many producers. Daimler, owner of Mercedes-Benz, is building its second factory for lithium batteries in a German town only 90 km from the village.
Driving the future
Competition for the perfect battery is most prevalent in the automotive sphere. According to analysts, EVs will be a EUR 195 billion global industry by 2040, and will account for up to 40% of global vehicle purchases in 20 years. That is, 40 million EVs will be sold annually even if the global vehicle market sees zero increase Currently, EVs run primarily on rechargeable Li-ion batteries. Their high energy density ensures lifetimes sufficient for most EVs, and they are becoming increasingly affordable. Yet Li-ion cells are also relatively fragile, temperature-sensitive, and—although boasting a great lifespan—gradual deterioration can be observed almost immediately, even after zero use. One solution may be to replace fluid with a solid. The fluid electrolyte in current Li-ions allows charged particles to flow through. Certain solids also allow this flow, but not at the speed needed for high-powered devices. However, Toyota has claimed that by 2020, it will launch a new EV that will be powered by a solid-state lithium battery. Should this solid form of battery came to fruition, it would negate the risk of fire and would open the doors to a full-metal anode, which offers greater energy capacity. This would be groundbreaking. There is also the option that the reign of batteries will end, with companies like General Motors (GM), Toyota, Volkswagen, and even UPS developing hydrogen-powered EVs, which beat other EVs’ range per fuelling. Hydrogen offers clean energy, the only end products being heat and water. A hydrogen fuel cell EV has an electric motor, but it produces electricity on board from stored hydrogen fuel. However, the collection of hydrogen is problematic: it must be pressurised and stored in tanks much larger than an energy-equivalent tank of gasoline, and it is highly time-consuming. Further advancements are therefore imperative in propelling this technology ahead.