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Better battery tech could boost EV range, speed up charging

At least if battery manufacturers can keep up with demand as electric power expands.

  • Battery demand is surging as conventional automakers catch EV religion
  • Along with US automakers, German giant Volkswagen now has a massive EV push
  • And Japan’s Toyota, taken by surprise when EV demand grew faster than it expected, is pushing battery-powered car development and working on battery supply deals.

Stephen Shankland November 25, 2019

Ford’s first electric SUV, the Mustang Mach-E, arrives next year, and it shows just how far we’ve come with EVs. Mainstream carmakers like Nissan, General Motors, BMW, Hyundai, Jaguar and Porsche are filling a field that once belonged to counterculture icon Tesla. And better batteries should keep the new models coming.

At the IDTechEx conference this week, startups showed off new battery technology that improves on today’s lithium-ion designs. The developments increase driving range, cut costs, extend useful lifespan, speed up charging and reduce fire risks. That’ll continue the kind of steady progress that’s more common in the computer industry than the car industry.

For now, the improvements are mostly in labs, and many of them won’t arrive until well into the next decade. But they’re an important foundation for the dreams of EV proponents, who want to see conventional cars that belch greenhouse gases replaced by cleaner, quieter electrics. Once passenger cars are plug-in, expect to see electric trucks, tractors, excavators, buses and even airplanes.

Burgeoning battery startups

The most important battery improvement is in energy density, the amount of kilowatt-hours of juice that can be stored in a given mass. That can extend range, cut battery costs and reduce vehicle weight, which in turn improves range. Startups are racing to achieve that and other improvements through changes to anodes, cathodes and other components.

Enevate, an Irvine, California-based startup whose investors include battery giant LG Chem, expects more storage capacity and dramatically faster charging. The company sees charging times dropping to just five minutes for a three-quarter charge. Conventional gas stations could be converted into “drive-through charging stations,” Executive Vice President Jarvis Tou said.

Another, Solid Battery, plans solid-state cells that do away with liquid elements and increase energy density by 50%, according to Chief Executive Douglas Campbell. His company’s approach has “the best blend of performance and manufacturability” and boosts safety, and BMW and Ford have development agreements with the company, he said.

Global Graphene Group also plans to improve batteries by encasing silicon in the anode with graphene, an exotic form of carbon sheets only one atom thick. The result, according to CEO Bor Jang, a longtime graphene researcher, will be batteries costing 30% less and powering EVs with a 700-mile range. Jang expects those batteries can be fully charged in five to 15 minutes.

Will EV demand mean battery shortages?

It all sounds promising, but burgeoning demand could cause battery costs to increase. Indeed, battery supply constraints mean Ford will make only 50,000 Mustang Mach-E vehicles in 2021.

“The demand is going to be enormous,” IDTechEx analyst Peter Harrop said of vehicle batteries. “We keep revising our forecasts upwards.”

Battery demand is surging as conventional automakers catch EV religion. Along with US automakers, German giant Volkswagen now has a massive EV push. And Japan’s Toyota, taken by surprise when EV demand grew faster than it expected, is pushing battery-powered car development and working on battery supply deals.

Electric vehicle sales should increase from 2 million in 2018 to 10 million in 2025, BloombergNEF forecasts. No wonder Tesla, which just announced its Cybertruck pickup on Thursday, is working on building its own batteries.

Analyst firm IDTechEx expects electric vehicles used for construction, agriculture and mining to outsell electric passenger cars. IDTechEx; photo by Stephen Shankland/CNET

Rising costs could slow the spread of electric power to all sorts of other industries, too, like construction, agriculture, mining, mass transit and aircraft.

Battery progress will help all these new industries become greener and quieter only if all that extra energy can be squeezed more tightly into cells without increasing risks of fires and explosions. Lithium-ion battery fires grounded Boeing’s early 787 Dreamliner aircraft, and there have been problems in large batteries for grid-scale energy storage because of insufficient testing, Harrop said.

“The industry is cutting corners in the race to get energy density, faster charging and longer cycle life,” Harrop said. “The fires will continue.”

Electric aircraft, too

Still, many companies, like French aerospace giant Airbus and US rival Boeing, believe batteries are coming.

Startup Ampaire is banking on a hybrid aircraft that marries conventional fuel-powered engines with battery-powered motors for propeller-powered aircraft common on short-haul routes. They’ll be much quieter at takeoff and will cut fuel use, a major constraint for short flights that are canceled when fuel costs increase, said Pete Savagian, the company’s senior vice president of engineering.

A larger scale hybrid due in 2021, the Airbus E-Fan X prototype jet will swap out one of its four conventional jet engines with a 2-megawatt electric motor, said Bruno Samaniego López, a power and electrical engineering leader at the company. A new single-aisle jet with 20MW of electrical power is planned after that, he adds.

“We are very committed to this ambitious path of electrification,” Samaniego López said. “It is happening, and it will be the future.”


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