Lower cost batteries herald an electric car revolution
It’s a widely accepted fact that, if we’re to meet the target of limiting global temperature to within a 2°C increase from pre-industrial times, we all need to dramatically curb our reliance on fossil fuels. Road transportation generates a large proportion of the world’s greenhouse gases, and it’s also a major source of pollution which in turn harms human health. Electric cars seem like a great alternative, however, there’s a problem which has been preventing their mass adoption: the technology is simply too expensive for mass consumption. The vast majority of drivers simply can’t afford to make the leap to electric technology. However, great efforts are being made to reduce the cost of the batteries which power these cars, with the hope that in the near future, many more people will be able to afford to buy in to this revolutionary technology.
Elon Musk’s Tesla Motors is leading the charge to bring down the price of Lithium Ion battery packs. These have already come down in cost considerably from, on average. $1,000 per kilowatt hour in 2007 to about $450 in 2014, with the market-leading manufacturers achieving $300. However, this is still too expensive for electric cars to compete with the internal combustion engine on price. With improvements in technology and greater economies of scale, many manufacturers, including Tesla, are aiming to bring this price down even further.
Tesla is constructing a ‘Gigafactory’ which some claim will drive down the cost of battery packs by 50% once the factory reaches peak production. If this is true, it’ll mean that Tesla will be able to produce very affordable electric cars for the average consumer. And even if this estimate proves too optimistic, there can be little doubt that the price of battery packs is about to come down sharply. However, the Gigafactory isn’t just for manufacturing car batteries. Last year Tesla launched $3,500 lithium-ion batteries, which have been designed to be fitted in homes to store energy from wind turbines and solar panels. This energy can then be drawn upon during peak demand times or when power output falls, for example during low wind speeds or at night. These relatively low cost and high capacity batteries could provide many homeowners the incentive they need to install their own renewable energy technology.
Ultimately, though, the future lies beyond lithium-ion technology, which has advanced little in the past two decades. The battery life of today’s smartphones is much shorter than that of the mobile phones of the late 90s and early 2000s. This is simply because phones have become many times more powerful in terms of processing power, but the battery technology these devices use has hardly increased its efficiency
Radical new technologies are needed, and a number of different options are currently under development. These technologies promise faster charging, much greater durability and vastly improved capacity. Concepts under development include Magnesium batteries, hydrogen fuel cells for phones, graphene car batteries, super-fast charging aluminium graphite batteries and solid-state lithium ion technology. Each offers a different set of advantages and some may be easier and quicker to bring to market than others, but it’s fair to say that for the first time in many years, new battery technologies are on the horizon and these could have a massive impact on our lives.
With lower cost and improved batteries, we could soon be living in a world where our city air is almost as clean as the countryside and our phones could once again last for days without charging. We might each have power storage units in our homes, helping us to slash our energy bills and reducing our reliance on polluting power plants. With so much at stake, it’s clear that investing in improving battery technology is a smart idea.