All electric vehicles by 2035 could be impossible without new battery technology
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California is enact “a sweeping plan to restrict and eventually ban the sale of gas-powered cars”, which Governor Gavin Newsom described as “the beginning of the end for the internal combustion engine”. Where California leads, many others follow. However, at present, there is no available technology that will enable the mass adoption of electric vehicles (EVs) at an affordable price for the average consumer. While policies like California’s aim to accelerate the global transition to electric vehicles, this plan is missing crucial elements.
Electric vehicles: Batteries, barriers and prohibitions
Let’s be clear about what we are working towards and the obstacles to getting there. Most electric vehicles today use a lithium-ion battery that requires cobalt and nickel to operate over long distances, meaning their batteries and cars are expensive. Batteries that use low-cost materials lack the range to be competitive with internal combustion for everyday consumers.
Based on current technology, the world isn’t even close to being on track to meet California’s goal of banning the sale of new gas-powered cars and light trucks by 2035. he industry has yet to define a profitable roadmap to achieve this.
Scale alone cannot solve this problem with current technology. For now, doing the same thing in bigger and bigger factories won’t help either manufacturers or consumers. Cobalt and nickel are becoming scarcer and more expensive as demand increases. It is uncertain whether global miners will even be able to meet the demand for these materials at current growth rates, let alone the growth rates needed for 100% of new cars to be electric by 2035.
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Nickel prices fell from $29,000 per ton to around $100,000 in March 2022 and continue to fluctuate wildly. Cobalt mining is particularly problematic for ethical reasons, mostly carried out in the Democratic Republic of Congo in unregulated mines that lack adequate safeguards against child labor and corruption.
Electric vehicles still out of reach for most
Cheaper batteries depend on the development of new technologies as soon as possible. Until then, electric vehicles are very difficult to produce profitably across a range of automotive products. Expensive luxury vehicles at the top of a product line give an automaker the sparkle of an EV future, but lower-cost electric cars currently depend on government subsidies to hit mid-market consumer prices. range.
The truth is, with today’s EV battery technology, automakers can’t produce the first affordable car for a newly employed college grad. Nor can they make a utility van for a hard-working contractor or an SUV for a single parent juggling two jobs.
To achieve mass adoption, battery costs must come down. An EV battery involves a complex system of chemical storage that depends on an anode on one side and a cathode on the other, with a dance of lithium in between. Several technologies are pushing to make a drastic change in the cost of these batteries, but the road to introducing new materials into a car on the dealer lot is long and complex.
To reduce costs on the anode side of a battery, one could switch to higher energy materials like lithium itself, or a shoehorn in higher energy silicon. Both of these approaches involve technical challenges that dozens of startups as well as large battery companies and universities have been working on for decades. Promising technologies in solid-state anodes and nanostructured silicon, as well as technology to increase the use of polymers in batteries, have combined over time to increase anode-side energy.
With billions invested to bring the technology to market, these innovations are being extensively tested in cars on the road, but that’s only half the equation.
The quest for sulfur cathodes
What has long been thought to be the end material for the cathode side of the battery is cheap and plentiful sulfur, but it has been fiendishly difficult to get it to work. Although no other realistic material on the periodic table matches it in energy potential, getting sulfur to meet automotive specifications has been a decades-long challenge.
While cobalt and nickel based batteries retain lithium energy in a crystalline structure, sulfur contains lithium in a chemical conversion that creates by-products, reducing battery performance. A handful of startups have been pushing sulfur cathodes for decades, but never quite produced a battery that could be tested by a third party and put on the long and expensive road to being validated for an electric car.
One way to pass sulfur through the “valley of death”, in the same way that anode innovations have just come out on the other side of the valley, is to temper it in the test forge. commercial level. Build a sulfur battery with the same specifications required for an automotive battery and have it fail again and again. Each time you cause it to fail, figure out why and bypass fail mode. Combine chemistry, engineering and innovations from universities, and you can start pushing a sulfur system closer and closer to automotive performance levels.
I run a startup called Conamix and while we’re pushing the sulfur system and we’re incredibly close, we’re not good enough at third-party testing for automobiles yet.
Focus on new technologies
Whether it’s an innovation on the cathode or anode side of the battery, it still takes three to six years from third-party validation to move it to a car that a consumer can buy and drive. A car manufacturer needs to know that a new material works in bigger and bigger battery cells and can be produced in existing factories and on a truly massive scale.
The world needs billions and billions of battery cells to achieve a 100% EV future. Companies like the one I founded in 2014 are at the forefront of new materials that could one day change the price dynamics of electric vehicles around the world. And we only make dozens of cells a day.
So there is a gap. A promising gap – between the fully electrified future being pushed by California and the reality of how difficult it is to bring new materials to market. Multiple technical holy grails have yet to be found and proven and pushed from the turmoil of a business-backed startup at scale that makes a difference for every consumer and, ultimately, the planet as a whole.
If the world is to hope to achieve these ambitious goals, we must make big and smart bets on new technologies on the same scale as we set deadlines and promises.
Charlotte Hamilton is co-founder and CEO of Conamix.
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