Which New Battery Technology Will Take Electric Vehicles To The Finish Line?

17:22 minutes

An electric vehicle charging. Credit: Shutterstock
An electric vehicle charging. Credit: Shutterstock

For the past seven years or so, electric vehicles have been on the rise. Tesla is practically a household name, and it’s not uncommon to see EVs from companies like Nissan, Chevy, and BMW on the road now. That wouldn’t have happened without the lithium ion battery. Right now, lithium ion is the most popular battery type for electric vehicles. It can last up to 200 miles on a single charge, and it’s not too expensive to make, which means EVs are also relatively affordable.

But experts say that lithium ion batteries can only take electric cars so far—both on the road and in the marketplace. Before they can beat more popular combustion engine cars, electric vehicles will need a battery makeover, which is why countless engineers and scientists are searching for the next EV battery.

[The quest to build a better battery for your smartphone is underway.]

So what’s it going to look like? There are dozens of battery chemistries to play with. But how many of them can even approach the success of lithium ion? Electric vehicle advocate and blogger Chelsea Sexton joins George Crabtree, the director of the Joint Center for Energy Storage Research at Argonne National Laboratory, to discuss potential successors to the popular lithium ion battery.

Segment Guests

Chelsea Sexton

Chelsea Sexton is an electric vehicle expert and blogger based in El Segundo, California.

George Crabtree

George Crabtree is a Senior Scientist and Director of the Joint Center for Energy Storage Research at Argonne National Laboratory in Lemont, Illinois.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. We’re kicking off this– I could call it a battery fest hour, because we’re going to talk about so many different things about batteries. And you know just about every major automaker has or is developing an electric vehicle.

Tesla– it’s the most well known, right? But there are EVs from Nissan and Chevy and BMW on the road. None would be possible, though, without the lithium ion battery. You go buy these batteries in the store. You know what I’m talking about. Lithium ion is the most popular battery type for electric vehicles, also. They can last these cars up to 200 miles on a single charge. And it’s not too expensive to make, which makes EVs relatively affordable.

But experts say that’s just not quite good enough. To beat out the more populous combustion engine cars, electric vehicles will need a battery makeover– not just some tweaks here or there, but perhaps a whole new type of battery to take it to the finish line. So what’s the next EV battery going to look like? Magnesium ion? Lithium sulfur? Well, the there are dozens of battery chemistries to play with. But how many of them even approach the success of the lithium ion, and how long will it take us to get there?

Here to help answer those questions are my next guests. Chelsea Sexton is an electric vehicle expert and co-founder of Plug In America. She’s been an adviser to numerous auto companies and was featured in that documentary. Remember that great documentary, Who Killed The Electric Car? Welcome to Science Friday, Chelsea.

CHELSEA SEXTON: Thank you so much.

IRA FLATOW: You’re welcome.

George Crabtree is a senior scientist and director of the Joint Center for Energy Storage Research and Argonne National Laboratory. Welcome to Science Friday.

GEORGE CRABTREE: Thanks, Ira and Chelsea.

IRA FLATOW: Let’s talk, Chelsea. How are EVs stacking up against gas-powered cars right now? Are they making any inroads, so to speak?

CHELSEA SEXTON: Slowly but surely we’re making inroads with electric vehicles. Right now, the number one thing holding us back is actually lack of product. And by that I mean variety, things beyond just smaller compact cars. Because people want different levels of performance and body style, and SUVs, and all of those things that we look for in traditional gasoline vehicles. And so we’re edging slowly but surely towards that variety, but it’s taking a little while to get there.

IRA FLATOW: Now, I understand there’s a debate over whether EVs are truly better for the environment than gas-powered cars. Some people have suggested it takes a couple of years of owning an EV to offset the emissions it took to make it. Is that correct?

CHELSEA SEXTON: Well, it depends on who you ask. But the studies across the board that have been done so far show that even on a soup to nuts, cradle to grave type of basis, driving an electric car is better for the environment than a gasoline car by around 40%. It depends a little bit on where that energy comes from. But even on a nationwide basis in the US, today, EVs are much cleaner than gasoline cars.

And they have the unique benefit that they can only ever get cleaner, because the grid can only get cleaner in addition to options like getting your own solar panels and stuff. So the cool thing about an EV from an environmental standpoint is the dirtiest day it will ever have is the day you drive it home, and it can only get cleaner from there.

IRA FLATOW: All right. George, let’s get right into the battery technology. What makes the lithium ion the best for powering electric cars?

GEORGE CRABTREE: Well, Ira, the lithium ion battery has been around for about 25 years. And of course, it was a huge success for personal electronics. It really revolutionized the way we deal with each other through our smartphones.

The question is can it do the same thing for cars. And of course, the battery in your cell phone is way smaller than the battery you would need for your car. And we require much more out of the car battery in terms of driving range and safety and chargeability than we do from our cell phone batteries. So I think the lithium ion battery has come down in price enormously in the last five years, and that’s really what allows Tesla and GM to bring on cars that cost only $35,000 and will go 200 miles. But the question is can it really compete.

And I think you asked the right question. What’s next? There are some things that are much better. In fact, JCESR attempts to make batteries. We want to invent the battery that’s five times better and five times cheaper than lithium ion batteries. And such things are quite possible. It’s just that they’re kind of high risk. And so most research organizations and companies don’t want to take the risk. They’d rather go with the standard lithium ion.

IRA FLATOW: Let’s get into what the possibilities are. Chelsea, what battery technologies look the most promising to you?

CHELSEA SEXTON: Well, I think there’s a lot of them on the horizon, as you said, that involve magnesium and sulfur and different components, often as a flavor variation on the current lithium ion batteries. So not all of them are wholly new chemistries. And it’s worth noting that we spent about 100 years on lead acid, and then around 10 years or so on nickel metal hydride.

And lithium is the most promising at the moment, in part because, as was mentioned, the price has been dropping so much, such that in the next five to seven years or so, it’s expected that electric vehicles will actually reach cost parity with gasoline cars. And so therefore, by mid to late 2020s, it’ll be cheaper to make an EV than a gas car, even on today’s batteries.

So as exciting and promising as a lot of things are in the lab, there’s also the aspect of the time it will take to scale, and also what some of the tradeoffs are. Some of them are great thermally in preventing thermal runaway, but at the same time, there are often tradeoffs in cost or density, other aspects that make them better or worse for electric vehicles versus grid storage, for example.

IRA FLATOW: George, you’re working right now on a couple of promising candidates?

GEORGE CRABTREE: Yeah. We have been. So we have a five-year charter. Four years are gone. We have one year left to finish our job. But a year ago, we selected two prototypes for transportation. One is lithium sulfur, and one is a magnesium battery. You’ve mentioned both of those before, Ira.

And they both have at least the potential to give you five times the driving range on one charge and cost one fifth as much. When it comes to the cell phone, the cost is really not the major factor, because the cost of the cell phone is mostly something else. But when it comes to the electric vehicle, the cost is really, really important. So the difference between $80,000, which is what a Tesla cost– Tesla that would go 200 miles cost until recently, and $35,000, which is what it will cost when the Model 3 comes out, is basically the cost of the lithium ion battery. That’s the amount by which it’s gone down.

So these lithium sulfur and magnesium batteries have the chance to be even five times cheaper. And I think this is a point that we need to think about. Chelsea mentioned some of the downsides and the fact that by the late ’20s, it may be at cost parity with gasoline cars. But they may not still have all the service.

So one of the things that people complain the most about is charging time. So if you charge your car at home with just an outlet from the wall, it can take you six or eight hours to get a full charge on it. And that’s just not the same, not even close to a gasoline car, which you can fill up in five minutes. So some of these other issues, I think, besides cost and besides range, are actually quite important.

IRA FLATOW: 844-724-8255 is our number. Let’s see if we can take a call. Let’s go to Philly. And Yvonne, hi. Welcome to Science Friday.

CALLER: Hi, Ira.

IRA FLATOW: Hey there. Go ahead.

CALLER: I wanted to mention supercapacitors. Apparently there’s a new technology out of the University of Surrey. It’s a supercapacitor that is an order of magnitude much more powerful than standard battery technology these days. And of course, it would charge much, much quicker than any battery on the market.

IRA FLATOW: Well, let me ask– thanks for calling. Let me ask my guests. Anybody ever heard of– why not supercapacitors, George?

GEORGE CRABTREE: A great question. And supercapacitors have been around for a while, maybe not as advanced as the one from Surrey that we just heard about. But there is one downside. They don’t store a lot of charge. So although they’re way faster than batteries for charging and discharging– and that’s really quite useful in many applications– if you want the driving range, you need a battery in addition to the supercapacitor.

You hear, especially in the UK, about cars that would combine batteries and supercapacitors to be able to do everything, so drive a long way and also pass a truck while going uphill. And in that case, you would engage the supercapacitor, which would give you the power you need. But I don’t think they can do it by themselves, at least not yet.

IRA FLATOW: George, do you agree with Chelsea how long it will take before we replace the lithium ion battery?

GEORGE CRABTREE: Well, that all– that’s hard to predict. It’s a great question. It depends on research.

So in our work, we’re hoping to have a prototype, and we expect to have a prototype by the end of this year. That would be December, 2017. And let’s say we did that, and it achieved our factors of five improvement that we’re shooting for. We would then pass that to a manufacturer, who would make a scale up prototype, 10 times bigger, just to prove that you could make it at the product size that you needed. And then if that were successful, he would make another prototype, which would be another factor of 10 bigger, which would be the actual product prototype that you would put under the hood.

That could take between five and 10 years. Depends on how fast it goes. So even if the proof of principle is ready at the end of this year, as we expect, you won’t see them the following year in your car.

IRA FLATOW: Uh-huh. Is that why companies like Toyota are betting on fuel cells instead, because it might be faster to develop a fuel cell than it would to find new batteries?

GEORGE CRABTREE: That is such a great question. And of course, I’m sure you know that this year, you can buy the Toyota Mirai, which z a fuel cell car. Interesting to compare them to an electric car. So the fuel cell runs on hydrogen, which you can easily store enough hydrogen in a compressed gas tank to get you 300 miles or more. So range is basically no problem.

However, there are no hydrogen filling stations around, or very few. So it’s a little harder to fill up. And as a practical matter, you’d have to drive it close to home where you could recharge it.

Just the opposite of an electric car, which has a little trouble with range. 200 miles is interesting. It may be enough, but it’s not close to a gasoline car and not close to the 300 miles that a hydrogen car would do. But you can charge it anywhere. There’s electricity all over the place. So it’s kind of interesting how that’s going to play out.

IRA FLATOW: Chelsea, I understand that there were electric vehicles around since the early 1900s. Whatever happened to that whole idea?

CHELSEA SEXTON: Well, I think Charles Kettering originally killed the electric car. No, EVs were very, very popular around the turn of the century, and specifically with women. They’re kind of the first chick cars, because they were clean and quiet and smooth, and they didn’t need to be cranked, most importantly. And that was one of the reasons that they were favored.

And then when the electric starter was engineered for gasoline vehicles, and they no longer needed cranking, and they had long range, and there wasn’t an issue around charging stations in rural areas and things like that, then gas cars started to take over. But in the last few decades, there have been a resurgence around EVs. And it’s a unique example in the history of the automotive industry. It’s the one type of car where the industry has always required demand to predate and continually exceed supply.

And what that sounds like is every time you hear an automaker say when we see demand, we’ll build electric cars, which has never been true for hybrids or hydrogen or SUVs or pretty much any retail product on the planet. So it’s unique in being a very advocate and consumer-driven effort until we can get enough market momentum to actually be self-sustaining.

IRA FLATOW: But we have Nissan and Chevy and BMW, not to mention Tesla, already in the market. Are they just putting their toe in, and afraid to really jump in in a big way? Is that what you’re saying?

CHELSEA SEXTON: I think they’re starting slowly, and new technology is expensive. At the same time, aside from Tesla, the rest of the automakers have a lot of core investment in internal combustion. And the way that they’re structured, and the way that they’re paid, and their incentive programs, and all of those sorts of things are not geared towards let’s transform into something really quickly that we’re not going to make a lot of money on right away. Which is part of why we see the entire auto industry, besides Tesla, currently lobbying our new president to keep doing the old stuff and not have to do so much of the new things.

So they’ll get there. But in order to really create some transformation and give people the products they want, we need more than two or three automakers. There’s no single gas car on the road for everybody, and the same will be true for EVs.

IRA FLATOW: I’m Ira Flatow. This is Science Friday from PRI, Public Radio International. We’re talking about electric vehicles with Chelsea Sexton and George Crabtree. What surprises me most about the whole electric vehicle industry is that there is no common charging plug. If you’re going to drive any of these cars across the country– we don’t go into a gas station and have five different gas pumps to use. Is there any effort to– if you want to make it popular, you can go into anybody’s charging plug. It sounds kind of wacky to me. What do you think of that, George?

GEORGE CRABTREE: That’s a great comment, Ira. And I think we need to shake out the standards for charging. In fact, not only plugs, but there are lots of charging mechanisms so you can charge at home and take six or eight hours. You can charge with a higher voltage, 240 or even higher, and do it in a few hours. And you can do DC charge in maybe an hour. But those are hard to find, and you’ll never do that at home. You have to find a turbo charging station.

And the question of plugs is also a barrier. So Tesla, of course, wants to keep their own charging stations, and they don’t want anyone else using them. Only Tesla owners can use them. We’ll have to see how that plays out. Will that really work, or is it better to have a standard?

IRA FLATOW: Tweet from Robert coming in. He says what happens to the car batteries. After they stop holding a charge, what do you do with them?

GEORGE CRABTREE: Great question, and lots of people ask that. In fact, if you look at how long the lithium ion batteries are guaranteed, it’s about eight years. And that’s a legal issue. That’s required by law. But a car lasts 15 or 16.

So if you’re the kind of person that really wants the most performance out of your car, after eight years, you may have to replace the battery, which could be something between $5,000 and $20,000, depending on what car you have. And then there’s the question of what would you do with that battery if it still was pretty good, but not good enough for the car.

One of the most interesting proposals that I’ve heard is use it on the grid. So take it out of the car and put it along with hundreds of other automotive batteries in a shed somewhere at a substation or at a generating station, and you’d be on the grid to back up wind and solar or various things like that.

IRA FLATOW: Chelsea?

CHELSEA SEXTON: Yeah, what George said. And there’s some interesting implications in that where if you, for example, were General Motors, and you knew that Southern California Edison would buy x number of kilowatt hours of your used [INAUDIBLE] batteries. You could possibly amortize the cost of those batteries over a couple of uses and lower the cost of the car up front. So the reuse issue is still very, very nascent. Nissan is experimenting with it in Hawaii and in Los Angeles and Japan. But the economics of it still have to be resolved a little bit. But it’s virtually unacceptable, in the minds of most working on this, that batteries would come out of cars and certainly not go into landfills, but necessarily even be immediately recycled, that they probably would have two or three uses over their lifetime.

And charging does remain an interesting challenge. Right now, the current solution is just to put both connectors on every charging station out there as much as we can, Just like you have a gas nozzle and a diesel nozzle at the gas station. At the same time, we have to be a little careful about forcing future mobility to behave exactly like past mobility.

IRA FLATOW: All right. We’ve got to go. Chelsea Sexton, an electric vehicle expert, co-founder of Plug In America. She’s been a numerous advisor to a lot of companies. She’s featured in Who Killed the Electric Car. George Crabtree is senior scientist, director of the Joint Center for Energy Storage Research at Argonne National Laboratory. Thank you both for taking time to be with us.

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