Electric vehicles are becoming more popular, but certain things are still holding them back from going truly mainstream. One of those things is the current generation of car batteries.
These batteries are expensive and have a rather limited drive range. You also have to charge them regularly, just as you have to charge your smartphones, and that takes time. Filling up the gas tank of a car with an internal combustion engine takes a few short minutes at most; charging an electric car’s battery, however, can take hours. These are significant drawbacks.
But changes are afoot. For one thing, production capacities in car batteries are on the increase. For another, the new generation of car batteries currently in development will charge a lot faster and last a lot longer.
Take Tesla. The company’s battery-manufacturing plant in the state of Nevada in the US is now producing between 3,000 and 5,000 car battery packs per week to power Tesla’s mass-market electric sedans. “In general, our understanding of production is improving dramatically, exponentially in fact,” the company’s CEO Elon Musk said. “If you can achieve [a production level of] even once in an hour, then with continued refinement of the system,” he added, “it means that you can achieve that sustained rate.”
Tesla is hardly the only car manufacturer that is investing heavily in electric car batteries. The German carmaker Volkswagen AG has just signed battery-purchasing contracts worth a stunning €40 billion in total. By 2025 the company wants sell 3 million all-electric cars every year, according to its Chief Executive Officer Herbert Diess, and those cars will need lots of batteries. (Last year more than 1.2 million plug-in electric vehicles were sold worldwide in what was a nearly 60% increase over 2016.)
But it’s not just the volume of car batteries that matters but their quality as well. And on that front too there are positive developments underway. New battery technologies are promising to revolutionize the electric car industry. For one, Henrik Fisker, founder and CEO of the California-based electric carmaker Fisker Automotive, says the start-up company is designing a new type of solid-state battery, which he says will significantly improve the energy density of lithium-ion batteries that are in use today.
The new batteries will last a lot longer and charge a lot faster. Better yet: they will also cost a lot less. The batteries will be in production by 2023, if all goes according to plan, Fisker says. The company’s solid-state batteries will feature electrodes boasting 2.5 times the energy density of current lithium-ion batteries. They will enable you to go for more than 800km on a single charge and the batteries can then be recharged within a minute, or faster than you can fill up a gas tank.
The current crop of solid-state batteries comes with marked limitations: they have low electrode current density, they don’t perform well in cold weather, and they cost a lot because of the limited availability and high price of lithium. Fisker’s new solid-state technology will facilitate the mass production of three-dimensional solid-state electrodes with 25 times more surface area than flat thin-film solid-state electrodes. They will also boast very high electronic and ionic conductivities, which will enable fast charging.
“This breakthrough marks the beginning of a new era in solid-state materials and manufacturing technologies,” Fabio Albano, vice-president of battery systems at Fisker Inc, promises. “We are addressing all of the hurdles that solid-state batteries have encountered on the path to commercialization, such as performance in cold temperatures; the use of low cost and scalable manufacturing methods; and the ability to form bulk solid-state electrodes with significant thickness and high active material loadings.”