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Deep Dive into Electric Vehicle Batteries: Webinar Recap

In our September 11 webinar, we took a deep dive into electric vehicle (EV) batteries to understand the technology and how it will impact the automotive industry in the next decade. Find a recording of the webinar and a brief summary below.

Lithium-ion battery technology is poised to make electric cars cheaper, reduce transportation-related emissions, and change the global car market as we know it. 

Lithium-ion batteries are already used in personal devices like cell phones and laptops. However, these devices don't require large batteries so cost has not been a problem. Since electric cars require much more storage capacity to have decent driving range, cost is a major factor.

Since 2011, battery prices have dropped nearly 85%. It's expected that by 2022-2026, battery prices will fall enough so that electric cars will reach cost parity with gas guzzlers. Combined with lower fuel costs and lower maintenance costs, it will be a no-brainer for many consumers to switch to electric cars; this is great news for reducing carbon emissions. 

To maximize the environmental benefits of EVs, it's crucial to consider where their batteries will end up after the life of the car is over; recycling and reuse applications will help ensure that used EV batteries don't end up in landfills and that we maximize the usefulness of the mined metals within them. Used electric car batteries are likely to have enough storage capacity to be useful as stationary energy storage for homes and businesses (instead of diesel generators) or as grid-scale storage to support renewable energy production. 

In anticipation of the electric vehicle boom, car-makers are scrambling to secure enough batteries to have their share of the millions of EVs worldwide that will be on the road by 2025. For example, Volkswagen is spending over $1 billion and working with an unnamed partner to produce battery packs near its headquarters in Germany to be able to reach their goal of producing more  EV models in the next decade. Based on where battery factories are opening in the next couple of years, it looks like China could become the global leader in battery production, especially because the country is already the largest EV market in the world. 

The tipping point for EV technology is now. Automakers and battery producers will have to adapt or be left behind. For more details about how lithium-ion technology will disrupt the global transportation sector, check out the full webinar above. 

Questions and Answers

Thanks to all of the attendees who posed their thoughtful questions throughout the webinar; here are your answers. 

What's the electrolyte in a lithium-ion battery?

The electrolyte consists of lithium salts dissolved in an organic solvent. The salt in the electrolyte creates a conductive pathway for the lithium ions from the battery terminals to pass through easily.

Does the battery pack play into the "acceptance rate" of how much energy can be transferred into the car?

Acceptance rate limits how quickly an EV can charge using a Level I or Level II charger. This rate is measured in kilowatts and is determined by the power of the car’s onboard charger, which converts AC power from the outlet to DC power the car can store in its battery. EVs with larger batteries tend to have higher acceptance rates to help them recharge faster, but they’re not intrinsically connected.

Does thermal management for batteries increase performance significantly?

All EVs have a battery management system (BMS) to manage battery temperature and make sure the battery is operating under ideal conditions. Thermal management helps the battery operate as efficiently as possible and prevents long-term damage by making sure the cells don’t get too hot.

There are limited supplies of lithium (and other metals in lithium-ion batteries) available on the planet. What do we do about that?

The reality is that there is a finite supply of just about every resource on Earth. To achieve long-term sustainability for battery production, the goal should be to maximize the lifetime and usefulness of the batteries that are being produced now. Even after EV batteries have lost 20% or more of their original capacity, they still offer a lot of storage capacity for reuse in stationary applications. This could mean old EV batteries being re-purposed to support renewable energy on the electrical grid or for back-up power in homes. When there are enough dead batteries after reuse, some materials can be recouped to be used again in fresh battery packs. In the ongoing effort to make batteries cheaper and more energy dense, researchers are working to reduce the amount of raw materials per battery pack, which will further help stretch the supply of metals we need.

Where are global supplies of key metals located? Are there political risks associated with battery supply like there have been with oil?

The Democratic Republic of the Congo produces 60% of the world’s cobalt, but Russia, Australia, and Canada are all big producers as well. China, Argentina, and Chile are the leaders in lithium mining, and there are over 20 countries that mine for nickel. Because of this wide distribution of resources, it’s unlikely that a single country will be able to use their ore supply to leverage political power as has been done with oil reserves. 

Are there new battery technologies that will be better than lithium-ion batteries?

It’s hard to say what new chemistry will pan out, but there’s a lot of potential for innovation in the battery sector because it’s still a young industry. However, it can take a long time to develop a large-scale manufacturing process for a lab-tested battery, so it’s likely that lithium-ion technology will not have a serious challenger in the next decade. One promising improvement within lithium-ion technology is solid-state lithium-ion, in which the liquid electrolyte is replaced by a solid material, increasing energy density and therefore decreasing pack costs.

I have an EV. Can I use it to power a 240V outlet with an accessory, like an emergency generator?

An EV must have “bidirectional capability,” or the ability to send energy from its battery to an external load, to power something like an emergency generator. The only vehicle that is currently bidirectional-ready is the Nissan LEAF. However, Nissan advises against using the LEAF’s battery as a power source and says that doing so will void the terms of the warranty on the battery, but clearly, they have a long-term vision for using electric vehicles as mobile power sources. There are pilot programs happening all over the world to develop the software and hardware necessary to allow vehicles to act as back-up storage for homes and the electrical grid. In the future, it is likely that other automakers will make their vehicles bidirectional-capable as well, but they’re focused on improving battery longevity before they’re used in other applications. We'll post a blog soon about this topic.

DC fast charging stations will be crucial along highways to resolve range anxiety. But, such stations are extremely expensive to build, and more importantly, utility demand charges make them uneconomical at present. Is there a solution?

When it comes to fast charging, it's imperative to get ahead of EV adoption rates. Utilities are stepping up in this field by covering the costs to upgrade electrical infrastructure for businesses interested in installing charging stations.  Eversource and National Grid have both committed to offering such programs to spur more DC fast charging infrastructure, even though the economics aren't great yet. $5 million from the Volkswagen settlement money in Massachusetts is earmarked for DC fast charging infrastructure, too.

Will we be able to have a new battery installed in an older EV?

If a battery degrades by more than 20% within 8 years or 100,000 miles of driving, it is usually covered under warranty and can be replaced with no out-of-pocket costs for the driver. (The specific terms of warranty vary by car, so be sure to check on the specific make, model, and year for any EV you may be considering.) However, it’s unlikely that older EVs with limited range (and smaller batteries) would have the physical space to have a larger battery installed than what it was originally designed for. So you can get a new battery installed in an older EV if you need to, but it probably won’t be much bigger than the original. You probably won't ever have to worry about going through this process; you can expect the battery to last as long as the car. 

What are the things we should do to protect battery longevity?

  1. Lithium-ion batteries can self-discharge if stored long-term at 100% capacity. If you know you won’t be driving your EV for several weeks, leave it about half full.
  2. Exposure to intense heat can cause range loss to occur more quickly. Avoid leaving your car parked in direct sunlight... unless it's really cold outside, in which case the extra heat can keep your battery warm and maximize your range. 
  3. If you’re used to driving a gasoline-powered car, you probably drive it until it’s nearly empty, and then refuel to a full tank again. The paradigm for electric car charging is different. In general, you want to plug in often enough to keep your battery between 20% and 80% as much as possible. If you don’t drive very many miles, you can set the maximum charge level to 80% or some other number to prevent over-charging.
  4. Save DC fast charging for emergencies or long road-trips. You should not be relying on it for charging on a regular basis.

These tips are suggestions; your EV’s battery will not fail suddenly if you end up leaving your car in the sun for a day at the beach. However, being mindful in situations where you can avoid unnecessary strain on the battery can pay off in the long run.

If you own a plug-in hybrid, you don’t have to worry about battery health as much. Since plug-in hybrid batteries are meant to be discharged completely on a regular basis so that you can do most of your miles on electricity, there’s extra capacity built into the battery that you can’t actually use to keep it operating within that 20% - 80% sweet spot.

While we expect that electric car technology will only improve in the next several years, there are plenty of great models available now. Find your next car with Drive Green to take advantage of special discounts at certain dealerships in Massachusetts and Rhode Island.