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Move Over, Lithium-Ion Battery, Time for Something Leaner

Printed Thin-Film Battery, Lithium-Ion Battery Successor?
Printed Thin-Film Battery, Lithium-Ion Battery Successor?

The industry-leading electric vehicle, the Tesla Model S, uses a lithium-ion battery pack, pretty much like every other electric vehicle of repute, but is that as good as it gets?

Rechargeable battery technology has indeed come a long way, but the evolution is slow. Nickel-cadmium [Ni-Cad] gave way to nickel-metal hydride [NiMH], which eventually gave way to lithium-ion [Li-Ion]. Each step has seen a corresponding increase in energy-density, but not necessarily a drop in cost.

Electric vehicles, such as the Nissan Leaf or Tesla Model S, are wildly expensive for their vehicle types. The Nissan Leaf, for example, starts around $28,800, isn’t much bigger than a Toyota Corolla, which doesn’t even hit $25,000 with all the options ticked. The main part of Nissan Leaf’s big cost is the lithium-ion battery pack. If it weren’t for federal and state tax incentives, it would be hard to justify this purchase, based solely on price.

Compared to semi-conductors, which double speed and capacity practically every eighteen months, lithium-ion battery “evolution is very, very slow,” says Venkat Srinivasan, a researcher at Lawrence Berkeley National Lab [BNL]. Lithium-ion batteries have gone pretty much as far as they can go, so what is needed is an entirely new technology. “What we want to do is get electric cars that go 200 miles on a single charge, but you can buy them for the cost of, say, a Toyota Corolla… we need a lot more work before we can get there,” Srinivasan continues.

The competition for the next big thing, beyond the lithium-ion battery, is global. Unfortunately, the United States is behind. There is practically no battery manufacturing in the US, and private companies, such as A123 Systems, failed before other companies could take advantage of their advanced lithium-ion battery technologies. Federally-funded research labs, semi-conductor companies, and a few startups are all working toward the next battery technology beyond lithium-ion, but it is an uphill fight. The moonshot goal of BNL is a battery with five times the capacity at one fifth the cost. Uphill, indeed.

Image © Imprint Energy

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  1. Tesla has clearly the cheapest battery cost among EV manufacturers, so currently Tesla is only one that can bring affordable long range low cost EV on markets.

  2. JouniValkonen it is true that lifetime costs are better for electric vehicles, even right now, but are there enough people thinking lifetime costs? We know the math is in favor of electricelectric vehicles, but the upfront costs can be  daunting. A $35000 long range electric vehicle would certainly get people’s attention. That’s why Tesla Motors upcoming mass market vehicle is so intriguing. Imagine if one of the crackpots successfully commercialized something five times the capacity at one fifth the cost?
    In the beginning, didn’t people see Elon Musk as one of the crackpots?

  3. Model S is not expensive for its class. It is actually the cheapest high performance luxury car on markets. I agree that Leaf is overpriced, but if it had 48 kWh battery with the same price, then the price is reasonable.
    Same sized ICE car is about as expensive as Nissan Leaf if total life time costs are considered. But as it has too limited range and no 100+ kW supercharging capabilities, its practicality is very limited.
    If battery price is halved, then electric vehicles are fully competitive against mid range ICE cars. And if assumed normal production cost reductions due to economy of scale, lithium battery price should be halved by 2017–2020. There is right now any competition for lithium-ion batteries in foreseeable future. Of course there are plenty of crackpot lab prototypes, but 99% of them is vaporware and they never find themselves from mass production.


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