When Tesla first hit the market, everyone sort of laughed that they were building an electric car off of a bunch of laptop batteries. Wasn’t there something better for them to use? As it turns out, not really. And there are a few reasons why we’re still stuck in that lithium-ion technology.
A new article from the MIT Technology Review notes that our top researchers have been busily working quite hard on developing the technology to replace our current lithium-ion batteries. There’s even a Department of Energy symposium called “Beyond Lithium Ion” dedicated to supporting newer, better, lighter, more energy-dense batteries.
The bad news is that this symposium has been running for nine years straight and we’re still stuck with lithium-ion batteries. If you’re wondering what’s sort of keeping electric cars in a liminal holding pattern in the auto industry, this is a big part of it. There are several reasons for this.
First, all of the new alternatives to lithium-ion batteries might improve in one aspect of performance, but compromise in another. So that means different teams focus on different aspects and we have since ended up with rather than one clearly-better battery, a bunch of different sort-of-better batteries. That means any funding money gets split up a bunch of different ways and slows down.
The second point further deals with funding, explaining that research on these batteries needs a lot of money over a lot of time, and existing research projects have been lacking in either one or both. Independent research teams that are working with millions of dollars need hundreds of millions of dollars that they don’t have to set up production. The companies that do have hundreds of millions of dollars either didn’t have enough long-term investment to get to the point of major production or they’re sticking with current lithium-ion designs. The infamous A123 system falls into the first category while the “Big Three” battery companies of Samsung, LG, and Panasonic fall into the second. It makes sense then that the biggest automotive battery production investment of our day, Tesla’s Panasonic-backed Gigafactory, is still sticking with lithium-ion.
This section from the MIT Technology Review explains how money getting divvied up is making it difficult for us to find a “winner” in the search for a replacement of lithium-ion tech, and how much of a challenge it is for that alternative to get the money it needs even if it gets discovered:
According to a recent analysis of more than $4 billion in investments in energy storage by Lux Research, startups developing “next-generation” batteries—i.e., beyond lithium-ion—averaged just $40 million in funding over eight years. Tesla’s investment in its Gigafactory, which will produce lithium-ion batteries, will total around $5 billion. That huge investment gap is hard to overcome.
“It will cost you $500 million to set up a small manufacturing line and do all the minutiae of research you need to do to make the product,” says Gerd Ceder, a professor of materials science at the University of California, Berkeley, who heads a research group investigating novel battery chemistries. Automakers, he points out, may test new battery systems for years before making a purchase decision. It’s hard to invest $500 million in manufacturing when your company has $5 million in funding a year.
So with no definitive alternative to lithium-ion, and not a ton of funding to go around in the entire spectrum of lithium-ion alternatives, we’ve been stuck in a lithium-ion loop for the past decade. What it’s going to take to break out of that, I don’t know, but at least I now sort of get why doing so is so difficult.