Electric vehicles

17Jan 2019

Ted Miller, senior manager of energy storage at Ford Motor Co., recently stated:  We don’t see another way to get there without solid-state technology.” The statement is in regard to more powerful batteries for electric vehicles. Mr. Miller goes on clarifying: “What I can’t predict right now is who is going to commercialize it.”

So what is a solid state battery and why is it so difficult to commercialize? 

First, let’s clarify some misconceptions. 

A polymer battery, known as a LiPo, is a lithium-ion battery. 

A cylindrical battery, like an 18650 cell (used in the early Tesla models) is also a lithium-ion battery.

A prismatic battery is too a lithium-ion battery with a hard shell.

And so is a solid-state battery. It involves newer manufacturing processes, but it is a lithium-ion battery. 

All of these variances of lithium-ion batteries have one physical principle in common: the lithium ions contribute to storing the electrical energy.

Simplistically, a lithium-ion battery operates with lithium ions shuffling back and forth between two electrical layers: an anode and a cathode. When the ions are at the cathode, the battery is discharged. When they move to the anode, then the battery is charged. The cathode and anode are called electrodes.

The motion of the ions between these two electrodes is facilitated by an intermediate medium called electrolyte. It is a solution that is electrically conductive: it permits ions to travel through it with little impediment. One key property is called conductivity: it is a scientific measure of the ease at which ions can travel through the electrolyte. High conductivity means the ions can travel easily and quickly. Low means the opposite.

In a lithium-ion battery, the two electrodes are immersed in an electrolyte solution. Today’s batteries use a liquid or gel-like electrolyte. Battery manufacturers go to great lengths to formulate unique electrolytes for their batteries. The formulations do have an impact on many of the battery’s specifications, in particular cycle life (the number of times a battery can be charged and discharged). 

In a solid-state battery, the liquid or gel electrolyte disappears. It is instead replaced by a “solid-state” layer sandwiched between the two electrodes. “Solid-state” means this layer is not a liquid, but a physical solid. The material can consist of a ceramic, glass, or even a plastic-like polymer, or some type of mixture of all three.

So why use a solid electrolyte? There are two major reasons. First, a battery with solid electrolyte occupies a lot less space than one with liquid electrolyte. That means one can pack more energy in the same volume. Consequently, energy density — an important metric of batteries — goes up.

The second reason is safety. Liquid or gel electrolytes are more prone to catching fire than a solid electrolyte.

Traditionally, the primary challenge with solid electrolytes is poor conductivity especially at room temperature (25 °C or 77 °F). A liquid or gel electrolyte has a conductivity that is about 1,000 times better than that of solid electrolyte. In other words, solid electrolytes exhibit a far higher resistance to the flow of lithium ions. This results in several performance challenges, starting with poorer cycle life and inability to charge at fast rates. 

Some companies proposed operating their solid-state batteries at elevated temperatures (> 80 °C) to improve conductivity. But this is not practical under most use scenarios.

Therefore the quest for solid electrolyte materials continues to be a much active field of exploration and discovery. There is confidence in the industry better materials will be discovered, yet, we really can’t predict when a breakthrough will be widely adopted. 

Another challenging aspect is the surface stability and manufacturability of solid electrolytes.  Unlike liquid solutions, glass and ceramic electrolytes are not deformable. They must be assembled with the two electrodes using high external pressure, equivalent to about 1,000 atmospheres. It becomes questionable whether existing battery manufacturing factories can be retooled for this purpose. If not, the economics of solid-state batteries will undoubtedly suffer as is the present case.

In a nutshell, there is much promise in breakthrough material innovations to make solid-state batteries a reality. Yet, many challenges remain ahead. I personally do not expect to see solid-state batteries in commercial scale for several years to come. We will continue to see evolutionary progress with traditional lithium-ion batteries especially as prices continue to decline.

But in all cases, solid-state batteries are subject to the same physical principles that govern traditional lithium-ion batteries. Consequently, many of the battery management solutions developed for traditional lithium-ion batteries will evolve and continue to apply. And that is good news.

17May 2018

I googled the question “ should I charge my phone to 100”. Google returned 467 million results. From folks offering opinions on “how to properly charge” to others calling on “science”, there seems no obvious consensus in the media. Yet,  unlike views on more socially charged topics, this question ought to be a lot simpler and ought to have a clear cut answer. Let’s explore.

I start with an easy experiment. Take two batteries. Charge one of them continuously to 100% and discharge it back to zero. Repeat. Take the second battery and charge it only to 90%. Discharge it. Repeat. Now compare the two batteries.  Are there differences? the answer is yes, there is difference. The battery that was charged to 100% will age considerably faster. 

What do I mean by aging? The technical term is “cycle life.” In practice, it means that the battery charged to 100% will lose its ability to store electric charge faster than the other battery. The difference between the two batteries can vary between 100 and 300 charge cycles.

So is that good? Well, it depends on what your use is. The definition of “good” is relative.

For a smartphone, my answer is “I really don’t care.” 

For an electric vehicle, my answer is “yes, it is better, but may be only marginally.”

For energy storage batteries used by electric utilities, my answer is “yes, absolutely.”

Now, let’s dive into the details.

A smartphone battery usually lives about 500 to 800 cycles. By cycles, I mean the number of times you will be able to charge it (to 100%) and discharge it before it becomes old and useless. Some smartphone manufacturers do better than others. Apple’s and Samsung’s batteries tend to be closer to 500 cycles. Others like LG, Sony and Huawei tend to be closer to 800 cycles. 

Let’s convert cycles to real-life years. Most smartphones are charged once a day. So 800 cycles is about 2 years of use before your battery becomes old. That corresponds well with the average time for consumers to upgrade. But wait, you might say you plan to keep your smartphone for longer than 2 years. What should you do?

Naturally, one option is to spend $30 to $50 once your battery is depleted and get your phone serviced after 2 years. The other option is to charge your phone to only 80% or 90% instead of 100%. That exercise will probably get you an extra year of usage.

But that is not the only way to get more longevity. You probably don’t know that if you use a small AC adapter instead of a bigger one, you will probably get the same benefit. For this method, look for an AC adapter that is rated 5 Watts, or use the USB port in your PC to charge you handset. And that applies to iPhones or Android phones. What do you give up? You are giving up fast charging. If you charge your handset overnight, then you really don’t care.

A self-serving plug for Qnovo: Smartphones with intelligent charging algorithms will take care of longevity issues for you so you really don’t have to think about this question and its answer. 

Now, let’s talk about electric vehicles. Should you top off the battery in your electric vehicle (EV)? First, it is important to know that EV manufacturers (from GM and Tesla to Nissan and VW) already limit the charging of the car battery to somewhere near 80%. The 100% that you read in your dashboard is actually 80% of the what the battery is rated for. That figure usually is sufficient to meet the warranty terms of the vehicle, often 100,000 miles or 10 years.

If you are leasing your car, then you really don’t care. Your lease will expire long before any meaningful battery aging sets in. But if you purchased your EV and plan to keep for a long time, then you may have an incentive to not top off your battery.

But wait, that is also not the only way to get more longevity. Every time you use a supercharger or DC fast-charging, you are causing serious damage to the battery. So instead, try to avoid using superchargers. This is particularly acute for the Panasonic batteries used in some of the Tesla models.

Lastly, I will add a few final words about electric utilities and batteries they use. These are complex systems that are slated to operate for at least 20 years! They are also very expensive assets that cost millions of dollars. So longevity is a serious matter. Naturally, users have no say in how these batteries get charged. Utilities and battery manufacturers do watch over these batteries so that they can last for a long time.

29Nov 2017

Congratulations, you just purchased a new Tesla model S electric vehicle (EV). You also committed an extra $2,000 to install a level-2 charger on a wall in your spacious garage. A level-2 charger will deliver 6 kW of power at 240 V to charge your big car battery overnight. Better yet, you are even considering investing an additional $20,000 to install solar panels on your roof and live a life with zero carbon. You might be cringing by now and thinking: “Wow, this is for the rich, not me.

So let’s consider instead a more socially responsible scenario. You leased a much more affordable Chevy Bolt that promises to give you 200+ miles of electric driving. You don’t have a garage. Perhaps you live in a large city so your car may be parked on the street. You are scratching your head: “How will I charge my car battery?” You might be lucky to charge your car during the day at work instead of overnight at home. But what about the weekends? No quick and easy answer.

As the adoption of electric vehicles becomes more widespread especially in congested urban geographies, questions about the charging infrastructure become prominent. Tesla leads in the deployment of their Supercharger network with over 1,000 charging stations installed worldwide, especially near major transportation corridors and highways. But the Tesla fast charging network is not compatible with other electric vehicles. Imagine that you can refuel your present vehicle at only one brand of gas stations, say at Shell only but not Exxon. No practical!

The buildup over the coming decade of a charging infrastructure that is publicly available to all electric vehicles is a must if EVs are to become a real alternative to vehicles powered by gasoline (or diesel). A fundamental requirement for charging is the availability of fast charging, more specifically, charging that can provide at least half-a-tank (or ¾ of a tank) in about 10 minutes.

Let’s do some simple math. An electric vehicle with a 200-mile range equates to a battery size of approximately 60 kWh. Half-a-tank is 30 kWh (or 100 miles). Charging 30 kWh in 10 minutes equals to 180 kW (or 3C effective rate). By the time we factor inefficiencies, the charging station needs to deliver a minimum of 200 kW. To put that in perspective, that is the amount of power used by an entire residential block! These chargers are big, expensive and hence have to be shared among dozens if not hundreds of vehicles.

But the infrastructure for fast charging is only half the problem. The elephant in the room remains: Can the battery itself charge at such a fast rate without being damaged?

The data suggest otherwise for the time being, unless we add a lot more intelligence to how we charge the battery.

The following chart shows the results of charging a battery at a slow rate compared to fast charging the same battery 30% of the time (or about once every three days) and 50% of the time (every other day).

The green curve shows how the battery retains its charge with slow charging. After 700 charge cycles (or about 130,000 miles of driving), it still retains 90% of its original charge. In other words, you can still drive 180 miles in what used to be a driving range of 200 miles. That is good!

The blue curve shows what happens if you charge 30% of the time. The capacity retention drops to 80% after 600 charge cycles. That is a rapid degradation. After 100,000 miles, your driving range is now 160 miles. It might be acceptable to some EV buyers but just barely. The resale value of your car has depreciated substantially below the average value.

The red curve spells major trouble. If you fast charge your electric vehicle every other day, your battery capacity drops to 75% of its original charge after only 300 cycles. That means that your driving range drops from 200 miles to 150 miles after about 50,000 miles of driving. What this graph does not show is that this battery is failing rapidly and has now become a serious safety hazard because of the presence of lithium metal plating. This is a serious problem!

So, if you own an electric vehicle such as a Tesla, and you are tempted to use the Supercharger network frequently, consider an alternative charging solution !!

31Mar 2017

We, that’s all of us on this planet, buy every year 1.6 billion smartphones. It works out to one new smartphone every year for every four living human beings on this planet. Cumulatively, we own and use 4 billion smartphones around the world. Every region of the world, rich or poor, is buying smartphones. Many developing nations in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia are growing their smartphone subscriptions at a fast rate. Ericsson reports that by 2021, there will be 6.3 billion smartphone subscriptions, that’s nearly every man, woman and child around the world. Impressive!

Of course, each and every one of these smartphones has a battery in it. Your first reaction is: “that’s a lot of batteries.” Yes, that is true. Sadly, many of these batteries go to landfills after they are exhausted. The easiest way to gauge the size of the market for batteries is to calculate the entire energy supplied by all of them. Of course, that is a large number. It is measured in billions of watt-hours, abbreviated as GWh. As a reference mark, the battery in a top of the line Tesla S is 100 kWh. One GWh = 1 million kWh = 10,000 Tesla S.

 

Screen Shot 2017-03-31 at 9.48.15 AM

 

In 2016, the battery factories around the world manufactured about 50 GWh worth of batteries for consumer devices. That drives an industry and a market worth in excess of $10 billions annually. Forecasts indicate that the consumer market will use about 65 to 70 GWh worth of batteries in 2020. Our appetite for more batteries is insatiable and the numbers show it.

Now let’s look at batteries in electrified vehicles, including both hybrid plug-in cars and pure electric cars (xEVs). This is a relatively new market. The Tesla S first came in 2012. The Nissan Leaf came a little earlier in 2011. Many states in the US or countries around the world haven’t yet experienced or experimented with such vehicles. In 2016, all of these vehicles accounted for a mere 0.9% of all car sales. In total, they amounted to less than 1 m vehicles in 2016.

 

GWh

 

However, in battery lingo, these cars accounted for an increasingly large number of GWh. The year 2016 was the first year that the battery capacity used in xEVs equalled that of all consumer devices, about 50 GWh. By 2020, xEVs will account for ⅔ of all battery production in the world. No wonder Elon Musk and the major car makers pay a lot of attention to their supply chain, including building these Gigafactories.

 

23Aug 2016

Tesla Motors announced today upgraded versions of the Model S and X boasting 100 kWh battery packs, up from 90 kWh used in their earlier top-of-the-line electric vehicles. One hundred kilowatt-hours sounds like a lot, and it is, but I bet that many readers don’t have an intuitive sense of this amount of energy. This is what this post is for.

First, a kilowatt-hour is a unit of energy, not power, and is most commonly used in electricity. To put it in perspective, an average home in California consumes about 20 kWh of electrical energy per day, so this 100-kWh fully-charged Tesla battery would cover this home’s needs for about 5 days.  Now that’s great if you like to go off-grid.

A Nissan Leaf has a battery with a capacity of 30 kWh and has a driving range of approximately 107 miles (172 km). If the Nissan Leaf were to have its battery upgraded to 100 kWh, then its range would increase to 350 miles, or about what you get from your average gasoline-engine car. That would be real nice!

100kWh is also equal to 341,000 Btu, that is if you like to use the British system of units. At about 10,000 Btu to run a home-sized air conditioning unit, this battery will provide you 34 hours of uninterrupted cool air. It it also equal to 3.4 US Therms (each Therm is equal to 100 cubic feet of natural gas), sufficient to heat a California home in the winter for about 4 days.

Now let’s get a little more creative in this comparison exercise. This high amount of energy can be quite explosive if not designed and operated properly and safely; 100 kWh is the same amount of energy delivered in 86 kg (190 lbs) of TNT….enough to level an entire building.

On a more cheerful note, this battery packs the equivalent energy of 86,000 kilocalories, or what an average human consumes in food over 43 days!

Yet as big as this figure sounds, and it is big, only 3 gallons of gasoline (11 liters) pack the same amount of energy. Whereas the Tesla battery weighs about 1300 lbs (590 kg), 3 gallons of gasoline weigh a mere 18 lbs (8 kg). This illustrates the concept of energy density: a lithium-ion battery is 74X less dense than gasoline.