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Andlinger Center Speaks: electric vehicles, their batteries, and the road to electric transportation

June 17, 2019

By Molly A. Seltzer

electric vehicle being charged
Close up of the power supply plugged into an electric car being charged

Electric vehicles (EVs) are slated to take over the roads. The global total has reached over two million vehicles. The Chinese electric vehicle market is massive and quick-growing, accounting for about a third of all electric vehicles on the road today. And global automakers have announced plans to become low-carbon with an increase in electric vehicle production. All the talk of electrifying vehicles shines a light on what powers them: batteries.

In this Q&A, Rebecca Ciez and Yiguang Ju discuss battery manufacturing, the future of the electric vehicle market, and the technological, cost and safety hurdles that must be overcome to increase EV deployment and meet carbon goals.

Rebecca Ciez is a Distinguished Postdoctoral Fellow at the Andlinger Center for Energy and the Environment. Her research focuses on energy storage, and the intersection of performance, technology adoption, and public policy for energy technologies.

Yiguang Ju is the Robert Porter Patterson Professor of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering and director of the Program in Sustainable Energy. He is also a founder of HitNano Inc., a company that produces batteries for electric vehicles using high-temperature combustion processes.

1. What’s the importance of electric vehicles (EVs) in terms of climate benefit?

Ciez: Globally, transportation accounts for roughly 15% of all carbon emissions, and in the U.S. and many other countries, it is the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions. This is a relatively recent fact in the United States and is largely due to the fact that cars still burn fossil fuels, while other major sectors of the economy, such as electricity production have become cleaner. Nonetheless, there are still a lot of fossil fuels powering the electric grid, so electric cars today may have less climate benefit than you think. The real potential for electric vehicles is to be able to capture future benefits of a lower-emissions electricity grid, one that is primarily powered by solar, wind, and other low-carbon electricity sources, as more fossil-based power plants retire and low-carbon sources come online.

2. What’s happening today with EVs and EV battery manufacturing around the world?

Ciez: The number of EVs continues to grow rapidly, and many automakers have plans to transition large portions of their fleets to electric or hybrid electric models, especially in Europe and China. Battery manufacturers are in competition for contracts to supply batteries for automakers, which has helped to drive down the price of batteries for these markets.

Ju: Many countries have announced that they will stop producing internal combustion engine-powered vehicles and go with EVs to increase energy sustainability. Today, China and the U.S. are the leaders in EV production. EV lithium-ion batteries are moving from low-nickel to high-nickel content, which allows higher energy density and lower costs. However, increased nickel content also comes with challenges of low cycle stability and increased propensity of battery fire. Japan, South Korea, Germany, and China are the leading countries for EV battery production.

3. How much is the development of the EV market tied to battery safety, cost, and efficiency?

Ciez: Cost is definitely still a deciding factor in the growth of the electric vehicle market. EVs are still more expensive than standard vehicles with internal combustion engines and hybrid cars, which keeps them out of reach for many would‐be buyers. Battery manufacturing has come a long way, and top tier manufacturers generally produce cells with very low defect rates (1 in 10 million), and then there are added safety measures through control protocols and sensors at the battery pack level.

While efficiency is somewhat important, the parameters that really matter are the energy density and specific energy of the batteries. Space is limited in EVs, and you don’t want the batteries to be too heavy, so if you want EVs with long ranges, it’s important that you can store a lot of energy in a small volume. The power density is also important, both for acceleration and to reduce the time it takes to recharge the battery.

 Ju:  EV companies like Tesla and BYD have been focused on reducing cost and increasing energy density or driving range. A recent accident of a spontaneous battery ignition of Tesla EVs in a parking garage in Shanghai has caused serious concerns about EV battery safety. 

4. Does it matter where EV batteries are made? How do tariffs on Chinese imports and exports affect the battery market?

Ciez: From a manufacturing perspective, EV battery manufacturing is highly automated, so there aren’t many regional differences in cost, but shipping can be expensive because the lithium‐ion batteries used in today’s EVs are considered to be hazardous materials. This is part of the reason for domestic EV battery manufacturing in the United States, which generally serves domestic automakers like Tesla and GM. The U.S. also doesn’t import many cars manufactured in China, so the effects on the EV market will probably be minimal. Other consumer electronics that use more imported batteries will probably be more affected.

5. What do you make of the recent pledges by automakers, such as Mercedes-Benz, to make their operations carbon-neutral within two decades by making more electric vehicles? What technical hurdles need to be overcome to get to his point?

Ciez: Carbon neutrality is really hard to achieve for durable consumer goods like cars because of all of the materials and resources, and associated upstream emissions, that go into the manufacturing process. Industrial sectors have been some of the hardest to decarbonize, so switching to more renewable electricity is a step in the right direction. Manufacturing plants can purchase renewable energy credits to offset emissions from fossil-based electric use.

Ju: Many vehicle companies such as Mercedes-Benz have pledged to make their cars carbon-neutral within two to three decades. However, the key hurdles are providing large-scale renewable electricity production and energy storage, as well as reducing the cost and improving the safety of batteries to enable high EV deployment.

6. What do you think the future holds for EVs and batteries? Where will top producers and consumers be? Will EVs be mainstream?

Ciez: In terms of batteries, we’re still seeing marginal improvement in lithium ­ion batteries in terms of storage capacity and cost, but there’s a lot of interest in developing new types of batteries beyond lithium ­ion that have higher theoretical energy storage capacity. Regardless of the battery chemistry, today’s top battery producers (South Korea, Japan, China, and the U.S.) will probably continue to play a large role, although manufacturing in Europe might expand given the demand from automakers like Mercedes and Volkswagen.

Given the global scope of the EV market, the number of automakers offering EVs, and the fact that automakers are currently designing multiple EV models to offer in the coming years, EVs have moved past ‘compliance car’ territory globally and will likely become mainstream in the next few years. But there’s a good chance that adoption is very uneven amongst different regions. In both Europe and China, a combination of subsidies and concerns about other pollutants besides carbon dioxide are helping to drive EV adoption. In the U.S., automakers are approaching the sales thresholds where EV tax credits expire, and the Trump administration has signaled plans to walk back CAFE standards. Historically, in the absence of stringent fuel economy standards and with relatively inexpensive gas prices, consumers in the U.S. have chosen larger, and often more expensive vehicles over more fuel-efficient options. It is not guaranteed that they would purchase electric vehicles even if they were more commonplace. Building up a market of electric vehicles fueled by low-carbon electricity is important because, on average, U.S. households keep their cars for 10 years, so transitioning to a future with a substantial portion of vehicles electrified will take many years.

Ju: EVs and batteries will create enormous opportunities for smart mobility, energy storage, renewable energy production, and resilient cities. EVs will be the mainstream of ground transportation in the next decades, but they face strong competition from high-efficiency and low-cost plug-in hybrid vehicles and advanced lean-burn compression ignition engines currently under development. In the next 10 years, lithium ion batteries with nickel- and cobalt-based cathode materials will still be the mainstream for EVs. In a longer term, solid-state batteries for EVs may enter the commercial markets. China and the U.S. will be the top producers and consumers for EVs.

Andlinger Center Speaks is a Q&A series that features experts from the center addressing topical and timely energy and environmental issues.

Securing a Sustainable Energy Transition: The Andlinger Center 2020 Annual Meeting sponsored by Princeton E-ffiliates Partnership will be held on Friday, October 30, 2020 from 10:30 a.m. to 3:00 p.m.Register now
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