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.
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