This story is part of Vox’s Recode Technical support series, which explores solutions for our heated world.
When consumer lithium-ion batteries debuted in the 1990s, they were revolutionary: they recharged in hours or less and we’ve made our modern computers and phones really portable. But three decades later, this battery technology needs a major overhaul, because the harsh reality of climate change means that lithium-ion batteries need not only to power our devices, but also our cars. It is much more difficult.
Lithium ion batteries have become the quintessential form of energy storage because they have an extremely high energy density, which means that they can store a lot of energy in a relatively small volume. Lithium itself is the the lightest metal on the periodic table, making lithium-ion batteries extremely portable. As technology has been incorporated into electric vehicles (EVs), these batteries have been pushed to the limit.
They can only be loaded and unloaded a certain number of times, and we may have reached the upper limit of their storage capacity. This is one of the biggest concerns people have with electric vehicles because more capacity equals more autonomy. Batteries also take up a lot of space in the cars we already have, which means we can’t add more batteries for more battery life.
Therefore, if this revolution in electric vehicles is to succeed, the batteries must improve. They have to go even further with a single load and weigh less. Electric vehicle batteries should also be less likely to ignite, a rare but very worrying problem. (Gasoline and hybrid cars are also fire hazards.) Recently, Chevy had to remove all the Chevy Bolts it sold because of the danger of battery fire. Lithium ion batteries in today’s cars could also benefit from new basic components. They are currently made from increasingly expensive materials, such as cobalt and nickel.
The race to solve these problems is accelerating. Long-standing battery manufacturers such as CATL and LG Energy Solution are rethinking the basic chemistry of batteries to make them work better in electric vehicles. Meanwhile, Ford and GM are investing in research into new batteries, hoping to have an edge over Tesla. Even the government is getting involved: in March, President Joe Biden invoked the Defense Production Act, a 1950 law that allows the president to increase domestic production of certain goods in times of emergency, to increase the country offer to rare metals and materials used in electric vehicles.
Okay, but time is running out. Climate change is only accelerating, and every new car running on fossil fuels runs the risk of exacerbating the threat. Fortunately, not only is better battery technology being developed; is starting to hit the market.
The lithium-ion battery, he explained
Electric vehicles do not run on a large battery, but on thousands of smaller cells. Each cell has four key components that make up a battery: an anode, a cathode, a separator, and an electrolyte, which is usually a liquid. To power a device like a car, charged atoms or molecules called ions move from anode to cathode through the electrolyte, releasing their extra electrons along the way and generating electricity. To charge a battery, the opposite happens: electrons flow through the battery and ions return from the cathode to the anode, creating potential energy that the battery can discharge.
In the case of lithium ion batteries, these ions are naturally lithium ions. Sony sold the first lithium-ion battery to power one of its camcorders, and battery technology quickly became ubiquitous in consumer electronics. Partly because they are now so widely available, automakers have resorted to lithium-ion batteries to power their electric cars. They typically do this by packing dozens of lithium-ion battery cells into larger protective housings called modules. These modules come together in an even larger battery, which powers the EV.
However, lithium ion batteries are not exactly perfect for electric vehicles. Beyond the unlikely but real risk of ignition, the average electric vehicle has a range of 260 miles. That’s enough to get you moving on your daily commute, but many drivers worry about long-distance excursions.
Lithium also has some issues. Lithium mining is not particularly environmentally friendly, and currently the world does not have enough lithium mines to provide enough material for the amount of electric vehicle batteries we probably need. There is also growing concern about other metals commonly used in lithium-ion batteries, such as cobalt, which is mainly mined in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and is related to child labor and human rights.
A relatively simple way to build a better battery is to incorporate different materials into conventional lithium ion technology. New materials come with their own pros and cons, and some combinations may be better for electric vehicles than others.
One such combination is called a lithium iron phosphate battery, which incorporates low-cost materials into the cathode of the battery. While these batteries may not contain as much power as other lithium-ion batteries, they do allow automakers to build more batteries for less money and therefore offer more electric vehicles at a lower price. Lithium iron phosphate batteries are already widely used in China and Tesla announced last fall that it would start using the chemical in its standard-range vehicles.
Another approach is to change the materials of the battery anode. Many lithium ion batteries currently have graphite anodes because they are relatively inexpensive and long lasting. But a good handful of startups use silicon, the same material used to make computer chips. Silicon anode batteries can hold 10 times more charge than graphite anodes and increase the overall power capacity of a battery. Companies such as Sila Nanotechnologies, NEO Battery Materials and Enovix are perfecting their designs.
A solid idea
As its name suggests, a solid state battery uses a solid electrolyte instead of the traditional electrolyte. This solid material is not a giant block, but a layer of material such as glass or ceramic. Solid electrolytes are more compact, which means that solid state batteries can be smaller and store more energy. Another advantage is that solid electrolytes are not as flammable as traditional lithium-ion batteries, nor do they require the same cooling infrastructure.
Solid state batteries still face real hurdles. They are expensive and difficult to mass produce, so far they have appeared mainly in laboratories. Another challenge is that many solid state battery designs have a lithium metal anode, rather than graphite. This lithium metal sometimes forms dendrites, metal branches that seep from the anode and into the electrolyte, which can cause a solid state battery to crack and shorten.
That doesn’t make these batteries a dead end. Some pacemakers, prototypes of headphones and other electronic devices have already been incorporated, and now the car giants are exploring how to adjust the technology so that they can eventually work in cars as well. There are already encouraging signs of progress: Volkswagen, Ford and Stellantis have invested in technology. Toyota plans to launch a hybrid vehicle that uses a solid state battery in 2025, and Nissan expects to launch an electric vehicle that uses solid state batteries by 2028. Another company called QuantumScape has shared research suggesting that a solid state battery can work. – and charge faster than other batteries – when combined with another idea: a battery that needs no anode.
Car shaped batteries
Finally, lithium ion batteries may not look like batteries. Maybe they just become part of what they feed. This is the idea behind structural batteries, which would have a double battery like any other part of a vehicle, such as the body of a car or the fuselage of an airplane.
This could address a key challenge with batteries, which is that they are incredibly large and heavy. Allowing a vehicle part to be duplicated as an energy source could, in theory, reduce the overall size of an electric vehicle. It would also potentially mean using fewer raw materials in general.
This concept is gradually being integrated into vehicles that are already in circulation. Tesla has designed a new structural battery that will connect directly to the interior seats Volvo plans to reduce the footprint of its batteries by designing them to support the ground of its cars as well, and GM is already launching electric vehicles that use batteries to strengthen the chassis of their cars. vehicles. These may seem like small tweaks at the moment, but they could pave the way for cars driven entirely by their own chassis, and maybe even airplanes.
The battery boom gets even bigger
Powering vehicles will be a Herculean task for the batteries, but it will not be the only one. To move away from fossil fuels, we need to use renewable energy sources, such as solar and wind energy. But because the sun and wind are not always present when we need electricity, we need to store the energy they provide when we need it. This means that our homes, our cities, and even the power grid will need batteries, which are very, very large.
These batteries will not necessarily have the same needs as the batteries used in cars, just as the batteries we use for cars do not have the same needs as the batteries that power our phones. After all, a battery that stores energy for your home doesn’t have to be particularly light, it won’t move, and it doesn’t need to be charged quickly. This means that these batteries will not necessarily need lithium and could even be powered by emerging alternatives such as sodium and zinc. But while these individual batteries are not all the same, they will all play a vital role in driving the future and halting climate change.
At least for now, anyway. Of course, in the future we may be able to fuel our cars with futuristic fuels, or even portable nuclear reactors. But all indications are that these technologies will not be ready soon. At the moment, the battery is the best we have.