The Battery Renaissance: Tesla and Beyond

Tesla Model S, source Tesla.com

Electric cars finally seem to be coming into their own, with sales of plug-in vehicles hitting 54,000 through the first six-months of the year. That represents a 33% increase over 2013, with sales of the Tesla model S and Nissan Leaf leading the charge. 

In fact, back in May the Nissan Leaf recorded its 15th straight month of record sales -- with a stunning 46% year-over-year increase. The Leaf is the No. 1 electric car in the world with total sales topping 50,000 in the US and 115,000 globally. 

Nissan Leaf, source Nissan.com

Tesla is planning on giving Nissan a run for its money, however, with plans to reach a sales rate of 100,000 annually by the end of 2015, thanks to the introduction of its crossover Model X. 

Tesla Model X Source Tesla.com

Critics of electric cars point to high vehicle costs, current range limitations, and high battery costs as reasons that these vehicles might never achieve market dominance. As this article will show, innovative engineers, scientists, and businessmen from around the world are hard at work to solve those issues and bring about a clean and green automotive future. 

Gigafactory to the rescue
Tesla is partnering with Panasonic to build the Gigafactory, the world's largest lithium ion battery manufacturing plant. The $4 billion to $5 billion factory will have an annual output of 35 GWh/year, which is greater than the combined capacity of all the world's lithium ion battery factories in 2013. 

The Gigafactory's most important role isn't just to build more batteries but to build them far cheaper. Tesla believes that by the time production begins in 2017, it will be able to lower the cost of battery packs by 30%. By the time production reaches its peak in 2020, when Tesla plans on selling 500,000 cars/year, the company hopes to bring costs down as much as 50% from today's levels. 

Source: Tesla Motors Gigafactory presentation

However, Tesla's herculean efforts with the Gigafactory are simply an effort to improve on existing battery technology and lower its price. Other companies and institutions are working on revolutionary new technologies with amazing capabilities in energy capacity and charging speed. 

60 second charging batteries
Korean scientists working out of Ulsan National Institute of Science and Technology have devised an innovative way to increase charging speeds for lithium ion batteries by 30 to 120 times. They believe that their method could result in a electric car that could be charged in less than a minute. 

Regular batteries charge from the outside in, meaning the larger the battery the longer it will take to charge. What these scientists have done is used carbonized graphite to create ultra-conductive pathways throughout the entire cathode. Think of it like blood vessels distributed throughout the entire battery, allowing it to be charged all at once. 

As with all things there are limitations to this promising technology. First and foremost, the potential charge time quoted is limited by the size of the battery. Thus a Tesla S's 85 KWh pack won't be achieving anything close to those speeds if for no other reason than the current required would be terribly dangerous. In addition, without mass production this technology would only add to the current cost of lithium ion batteries. However, the techniques being pioneered in Korea could eventually make their way into consumer electronics, which would pave the way for mass production, cost reductions and a future in which "range anxiety" is a thing of the past.

Batteries with 1,000 times the energy density
Researchers at IBM's Almaden laboratories in San Jose, California, are working on a lithium-air battery that has a theoretical density 1,000 times greater than current lithium-ion technology.

IBM's goal is to have commercial batteries ready by 2020 that would allow a 500-mile range and be cost competitive with gas. The key to this breakthrough is the air breathing nature of IBM's batteries. Today's batteries use heavy metal oxides as the positive cathode material. IBM's battery replaces these with carbon, which reacts with oxygen from the air. During a recharge the oxygen separates from the carbon and returns to the atmosphere. Think of it like this: Today's batteries are like sealed gas cars that carry both gas and air in their tanks for combustion. IBM's atmosphere breathing battery allows more room for lithium and carbon (the gas), thus greatly increasing the energy density, storage capacity, and range.

Foolish takeaway 
Critics of today's electric cars aren't wrong about their limitations. However, they fail to appreciate the innovation that millions of scientists, inventors, and industrialists are working to find solutions to those problems. Within a decade electric cars might have ranges of 500+ miles, recharge in the same time it takes to fill a gas tank, and cost the same as gasoline cars. This would give the more efficient electric car the edge over its petroleum-powered counterparts. 


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