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Betting on batteries

In the last year or so, as the world has been struggling to emerge from the pandemic, we have begun to see sharp increases in both consumer awareness of EVs and subsequent sales. This is generally great news for those concerned about the climate and it marks a turning point for the entire automotive industry. The internal combustion engine simply isn’t able to keep up with climate targets. But are battery electric vehicles (BEVs) the only path that keeps us on track to climate neutrality?

Both hydrogen fuel cell vehicles (FCVs) and eFuel technology offer compelling arguments for alternate paths. At Munich’s IAA Mobility Conference in September, industry experts debated the pros and cons of each technology and the likelihood that they would make a sizable dent in the industry’s carbon footprint. The overwhelming conclusion from these experts, and from the entire event, is that BEV is just one path forward and we can’t ignore the others. In this three-part article series, we’ll look at each of these technologies, weigh the pros and cons, and discuss a potential path forward.

But why do we need to focus on alternative technologies when BEVs have already proven to be a commercially successful, environmentally-friendly technology? Perhaps the largest issue is that battery production is, unfortunately, very carbon-intensive. In fact, a typical BEV will have a significantly larger carbon footprint than a comparable ICE vehicle when we consider only the production and end-of-life phases. In the “use phase”, as long as the BEV is charged with renewable electricity, it will be on the path toward a smaller lifetime carbon footprint, but this will likely take several years. In some cases, the BEV will never break even with the ICE vehicle. Mining for rare materials isn’t only responsible for the release of a large quantities of stored carbon, but also for pollution, destruction of natural habitats, unethical work practices, and damage to workers’ health. This is hardly the view that most new BEV owners had in mind when they opted for the “eco-friendly” option. Beyond the carbon footprint, we must also consider that modern lithium-ion batteries contain only a fraction of the energy that a gasoline or diesel tank contains for the same mass. This is why most BEVs are surprisingly heavy yet have only a mediocre range. Moving extra mass requires more energy, which reduces our transportation efficiency. In an average gasoline-powered vehicle, the fuel weighs about 40 kg and that weight decreases as you drive. In a modern high-end BEV, it’s common for batteries (the fuel) to weigh 500kg or more. This weight does not decrease while driving, and unfortunately the laws of physics mandate that extra energy is applied to this extra mass as we accelerate, decelerate, corner, and cruise. So when you opt for the larger battery pack, you’re also opting for a less efficient vehicle. This problem is amplified for larger vehicles, including heavy goods vehicles (aka semis). To provide the same long-haul capability of a modern diesel semi-truck, an electric truck would require as much as 12,000 kg of batteries. Not only is this cost prohibitive, but the weight of the batteries would reduce the total payload by 30% - making commercial success very unlikely. This is why some companies and governments are looking at conductive charging technologies, including in-ground tracks and overhead wires, that allow trucks to travel long distances with relatively small batteries.

The most advanced batteries in the market are able to achieve an energy density somewhere around 260 Wh/kg. Meanwhile, gasoline has an energy density that is a staggering 50 times as large – for diesel, this figure is even larger. Granted, around 80% of this energy is lost to heat in the engine, yet this still gives us nearly 10 times the energy density of a modern BEV battery. We could also talk about how the increasing weight of our on-road fleet reduces the safety of those drivers with lighter-weight vehicles. Will we need to buy heavy BEVs to stand a better chance of survival in a crash, the same way the public gobbled up ‘safer’ SUVs over the last two decades? But perhaps we should put that discussion back on the shelf for now, as we risk a long and winding tangent into the topics of vehicle safety and competitive consumer behavior.

Undoubtedly, electrification is one of the greatest steps we can take toward sustainable transportation. In fact, one of the bonus benefits of BEVs is that localized air pollution is entirely eliminated. If a large city suddenly chose to allow only BEVs to enter, the air would smell and look noticeably cleaner overnight, respiratory health problems would improve, and perhaps most noticeably, the city would be much quieter. Yet if we stop at the local effects, we then ignore the increased carbon emissions that were produced at the battery factory, perhaps in South Korea or Norway, and the increased carbon emissions that were produced at lithium and cobalt mines in Australia and the Congo.

This all sounds quite negative, as we claim to embrace electrification. That’s because no new, revolutionary technology ever hit the ground running. There have been, and will continue to be, growing pains - most of which we can get past. The mining conditions can be improved through supplier oversight and government action. In fact, there have been many improvements made by some of the largest mining companies already. This is because the world took notice and demanded change. Let’s not stop there though. Remember the coal power plant that’s pumping out pollution to charge EVs? This can be fixed as well. In most progressive countries, we can opt for green energy tariffs so that our homes, cars, and office can all run on green, renewable electricity. Sure, this doesn’t solve the problem with public charging, but many governments have already put regulations in place to guarantee that all public EV chargers use green energy tariffs. If you’re one of the unlucky ones that can’t purchase a green tariff, you can always purchase carbon offsets… yet most consumers are understandably reluctant to buy something that has no tangible proof of value. The last opportunity for improvement is the battery itself. Technologies such as LFP (Lithium Iron [Fe] Phosphate) eliminate cobalt entirely, removing concerns about cobalt mining with the tradeoff of lower energy density (i.e. shorter range).

No discussion of environmental impact is complete without looking at the vehicle’s end of life. What will we do with these large batteries when a vehicle is ready to be discarded? It’s estimated that by 2025, we will have 190 GWh of disposed batteries. Fortunately, the industry has been working hard on two concepts: reuse and material recovery. Reuse strategies aim to put retired EV batteries into a stationary application where the energy density of an old battery is not as important. Some applications include home and office power back-ups, power grid support to smooth out high and low demand, and as support for off-grid power-stations. There may not be enough demand for second life batteries to meet the supply, and in that case, material recovery may be the best option. This is essentially a complex recycling process that separates all the materials in the battery so that they can be processed into raw ingredients for use in the manufacture of new batteries. Some of the most commercially important materials are copper, aluminum, steel, lithium, cobalt, and manganese. No process can recover 100% of the materials and it is currently very labor intensive, meaning that the recovered materials will likely be more expensive than mined minerals, providing a sort of disincentive to use recycled materials – not to mention concerns about the purity of recovered materials. Rising raw material prices and government mandates will help to create a more effective circular economy.

Lithium-ion batteries are continuously being improved, yet we’re in need of a step-change if we’re going to make BEVs a truly efficient means of travel. That step-change may come in the form of the much-lauded solid-state batteries or, potentially, a new chemistry all together. At present, we don’t have a clear view of when these technologies will (if ever) be ready for the market. We improved the internal combustion engine over 140 years, with its power and efficiency improving by orders of magnitude. If we continue to focus our efforts on battery research, there is no doubt that we will make significant advances. Combine this with responsible outside-the-car improvements mentioned above, and the BEV has a strong chance at having a revolutionary impact on our environment, beyond the drop-in-the-bucket effects that BEVs have had to-date.

Even if we improve the BEV and its ecosystem to the point that it is a truly carbon-neutral technology, consumers must still trade in their ICE vehicles for EVs for any real impact to be made. In SBD Automotive’s 2021 survey of more than 6,000 vehicle owners, 76% of Europeans, and only 60% of Americans, said they would even consider an EV for their next vehicle. With over 500 million fuel-burning vehicles on the road across these two regions, it’s critical that more consumers switch to electric vehicles when it’s time to replace their current vehicle. Even with the enormous publicity that EVs have experienced in the last 18 months, BEVs still account for less than 1% of vehicles on the road in Europe and the USA. Sustained consumer interest matched with increasing production capacities will be necessary for EVs to play a major role in shaping our futures.

So yes, there’s a lot of work ahead of us if BEVs are to deliver on their environmental promise and it will require concerted efforts from global governments, researchers, and automakers. However, BEVs are not the only horse in the race. Both hydrogen fuel cells and synthetic fuels are also potential options for a greener future, yet the technologies are still quite nascent.


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