All around the world, countries are sounding the death knell for the internal combustion engine. Earlier this month, France announced that it wanted to end the sale of petrol and diesel cars by 2040, joining India (2030) and Norway (2025) in envisioning an all-electric future.
Car-makers are racing to meet demand, with Volvo promising that from 2019, all of its new models will feature an electric motor.
Modern electric motors are compact, extremely efficient and emissions-free at the point of use but each one requires a battery to store and deliver power, and that is where electric vehicles (EVs) stumble.
Most EVs today use lithium ion battery packs, the same technology that powers smartphones, tablets and laptops. Lithium ion packs for electric cars have fallen in price by about 80% since 2010, according to consulting firm McKinsey, but they remain expensive.
A replacement battery pack for GM’s Chevrolet Bolt is priced at more than $15,700 (£12,150) – representing over 40% of the cost of the entire vehicle. It could take a decade or more for EVs to drop to the price of petrol car, says McKinsey.
While electric motors are much more efficient than internal combustion engines, batteries can store only a small fraction of the energy in fossil fuels. Some of today’s EVs can run out of juice in as little as 100 miles.
Finally, while lithium ion batteries are not as explosive as petrol, they do have safety issues. They require cooling to keep from over-heating and contain flammable liquid electrolytes that readily ignite if the battery is damaged.
“For EVs, you have to consider cost, energy density, and safety,” says Jun Liu, a materials scientist at the US Department of Energy and director of Battery500, a $50m effort to improve lithium ion batteries, backed by Tesla and US tech giant IBM. “All three things are very important.”
Car companies are committing to an electric future, but the success of the sector depends on better batteries
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