To succeed, electric cars require batteries that store the greatest possible amount of energy in the smallest, lightest, safest, and cheapest package possible. But batteries pose a brutal technical challenge--one subject to all manner of misunderstandings and misinformation. Can today's lithium-ion batteries cut it? What new battery technologies lie on the horizon?
Today from 2:30 to 3:30 pm Eastern time, GM's director of Global Battery Systems, Bill Wallace, and PopSci's Seth Fletcher, author of Bottled Lightning: Superbatteries, Electric Cars, and the New Lithium Economy, will field these questions in an online chat, right here.
One of the most common criticisms of the Chevy Volt has nothing to do with the car itself—it’s that there are so few of them available. General Motors shipped the first 360 Volts to dealers last month, but for the first quarter of this year you can only buy a Volt in six states and Washington, D.C. GM has obviously been hearing the same complaints. Today the company announced that it would make the Volt available in all 50 states by the end of this year—six months earlier than the original plan.
If you had to separate the speakers at this year's Lithium Supply and Markets conference into two camps, you could do it like this: There are those who believe that the electrification of the automobile will proceed at a steady, orderly pace, and that over the next 10 or 15 years the world's lithium producers together to mine and process an additional 7 or so percent each year. Then there are those who believe anything could happen--who think this kind of orderly extrapolation is blindly conservative.
The noise about “Peak Lithium”—the idea that not enough economically extractable lithium exists in the world to support a large-scale switch to cars powered by lithium-based batteries—has quieted significantly in the past year, but I still sometimes get asked: Are we going to run out of this stuff?
Not any time soon. In fact, as a noted market analyst made clear this morning, so many companies are developing so many lithium deposits around the world that many of them will probably go out of business, because they’re on track to dramatically oversupply the world with lithium.
Before the average electric car can travel 500 highway miles on a single charge, we’ll need better batteries than the lithium-ion packs used today. Last week, when Toyota told the press that it was working on a magnesium-based electric-car battery that could beat or even replace lithium-ion, the news dashed across the Internet. But anyone inclined to start calling magnesium the “new lithium” needs to keep a few important things in mind.
Yesterday, GM announced that it would start using an advanced lithium-ion electrode material developed by Argonne National Laboratory. Turns out that an early version of that material is already blended into the Volt’s batteries. But that’s not the end of the story: Expect dramatically better EV batteries based on the compound very soon
There was a puzzling moment in the conference call GM held yesterday to announce its licensing of a new high-energy battery-electrode chemistry from Argonne National Laboratory. Mohamed Alamgir, research director for LG Chem's subsidiary Compact Power, which builds the battery cells for the Chevy Volt, mentioned that the new license covered technology the companies were already using. This didn't seem to make sense: LG Chem has always said that the Volt's batteries were built on a compound called lithium manganese spinel.