Electric vehicles

30Dec 2019

Whether related to the stock market, presidential elections or climate, December is the month to make predictions for the coming year and decade. So what battery trends should we expect for the upcoming 2020-2030 decade?

1.Lithium-ion batteries will power more applications — electrification of everything:  The 2019 Nobel Prize in Chemistry highlights the progress lithium-ion batteries achieved in the past four decades. From a laboratory experiment in the 1970s, they are now ubiquitous in consumer devices. Increasingly, they are making inroads in transportation and grid storage applications. 

There is no question that the 2020s are the decade of electrification of transportation, from electric vehicles to buses and trucks. The number of available electric-vehicle (EV) models jumped from about ten in 2015 to over 75 in 2020, including categories of sports cars, sedans, SUVs and light trucks. Automotive companies and their supply chain are inexorably transforming. This will not be an easy transformation — there will be winners and losers. Car manufacturers and Tier-1 suppliers that will not adapt in the next couple of years risk becoming irrelevant. The nature of skilled labor in transportation is also transforming. Labor unions are taking notice but much training is needed for this new labor force.

Electric utilities will implement more energy storage projects on their grids — partly driven by regulations as well as the proliferation of clean-energy grids with distributed wind and solar generation. 

Industrial applications with historically smaller unit volumes will benefit from the increased proliferation of lithium-ion batteries. As communities seek cleaner air, we will see local regulations banning just about anything powered by fossil fuel, from forklifts to lawnmowers.

2. Batteries will deliver better performance but with optimized compromises:

Bill Gates’ famous quote in 1981 “640KB ought to be enough [memory] for everybody” stands as a stark reminder that there is not enough of a good thing. Just like computers flourished with more computational power and memory, mobility will continue to thrive with more available battery capacity. Next-generation 5G wireless smartphones require more battery capacity. Electric vehicle drivers require longer driving ranges (300+ miles). More battery capacity means a continued drive to look for newer materials with higher energy density. 

The public will become more discerning and expecting better battery warranties. Longer cycle life (lifespan) while fast charging will become a standard of performance especially in transportation.

But at what cost? Manufacturers will learn to optimize the battery’s capacity, size, cycle life and charging time to the target application or user case. Electric vehicles in fleets will have  vastly different battery designs than those for, say, residential commuters. Backup batteries used in conjunction with solar power will be even more different. Buyers of electric vehicles will learn how to make informed choices based on the battery. Much like buyers historically learned to understand the difference between 4- and 8-cylinder engines, they will become more literate in understanding the differences between kWh-ratings.

3. Battery prices will continue to decline, but at a slower pace:

The cost of lithium-ion batteries declined in the past decade from over $1,100 per kWh to $150 per kWh in 2019. Forecasters expect this figure to drop below $100 in 2023. At such levels, electric vehicles will reach cost parity with traditional vehicles using internal combustion engines (ICE) — without government buyer incentives. Driven by scale, increased volumes, and a dominant battery manufacturing based in China, standard batteries are increasingly become commoditized. Supply chains are becoming more specialized in addressing the commoditization of batteries. In an effort to improve the profitability of EV models, auto manufacturers will increasingly apply traditional cost disciplines to their battery supply chain, spanning improved manufacturing efficiencies to hedging. A few select applications in need of higher performance will benefit from new developments in advanced materials, e.g., providing higher energy density, albeit at a higher cost, but probably with limited penetration.

The risk of trade tensions with China will continue to loom over the battery supply chain. Even as lithium-ion battery manufacturing facilities come online in other parts of Asia and Europe, China will continue to dominate the lithium-ion battery supply chain, from sourcing raw materials to final assembly. The United States federal and state governments will need to formulate clear policies to address the rapid transition to a battery-centric transportation system — or risk escalating trade tensions with China around battery technologies and manufacturing.

4. Batteries will become safer in the field:

Smartphones routinely catch fire in many parts of Asia — and it’s not even headline news. That will change. That must change. The expected standard of battery safety must improve substantially, especially as larger battery capacities become available (in electric vehicles or electric grids). Efficient inspection methods at the manufacturing site and intelligent battery management systems in the field can improve battery safety by orders of magnitude. 

Yet, it is sadly inevitable that battery fires will become headline news in the future before the industry invests heavily in improving battery safety, possibly even with intervention of some governments.

5. Governments will step in to regulate the recycling of lithium-ion batteries:

The industry will recognize that the recycling of lithium-ion batteries is existential to its future growth. The impact of lithium-ion batteries on the environment, from mining raw materials to disposal of depleted batteries, will be devastating if economic recycling methods are not put in place. For example, lead acid batteries are the no. 1 recycled consumer item in the United States with a recycling rate in excess of 99%. Unfortunately, history shows that governments will need to step in and regulate certain recycling targets for lithium-ion batteries. 

09Oct 2019

I was beaming with delight when I read that John Goodenough, Stanley Wittingham and Akira Yoshino received the 2019 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for the “development of lithium-ion batteries.”

Wittingham’s initial work on batteries dates back to the 1970s while at Exxon. Goodenough’s seminal work on LCO cathodes at Oxford was published in 1980. Yoshino’s contributions on the graphite anode came in 1980s at Asahi Kasei in Japan. Sony converted their ideas into the first commercial lithium-ion battery product in 1991.

courtesy: The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences

So it is about time that these scientists are recognized for their contributions and for initiating a revolution in energy storage. The award shines the light on the contributions of thousands of scientists and engineers who have diligently worked in the past decades to make lithium-ion batteries ubiquitous in our lives. Just imagine your modern digital life, your iPhone, or your Tesla vehicle, without a lithium-ion battery. You simply can’t!

With today’s Nobel award, lithium-ion batteries join the ranks of great inventions such as the transistor or polymerase chain reaction (PCR). The invention of the silicon transistor in 1951 became the catalyst that led to modern-day Silicon Valley. Kari Mullis’ discovery of PCR technique in 1983 set in motion a vast industry in biochemistry and drug discovery.

Nearly 30 years have passed since Sony manufactured the first lithium-ion battery. Over these three decades, the lithium-ion battery went from powering early models of consumer camcorders to transforming transportation. Nonetheless, the industry remains in its early days with many more challenges to overcome and discoveries to be made. 

As the adoption of electric vehicles accelerates in the coming years, the lithium-ion battery takes a fundamental role in our economy no less than that assumed by the combustion engine in the early part of the 20th century. Challenges in battery performance, safety, manufacturing, cost, integration with complex electronic systems, all must be resolved….challenges also mean opportunities for innovation, and opportunities for scientists and engineers to make lasting contributions.

In an era where the meaning of “tech,” especially here in the San Francisco Bay Area, has become synonymous with the creation of new gadgets or new business models, we should not lose sight that science remains the engine that powers technology.

24Jun 2019

You are an entrepreneur. You understand that batteries are powering the future. You think present battery technology falls short of market demands. You invented a new battery technology. You may even have some early prototypes that show some exceptional promise. So you start a new company to commercialize your new technology. Welcome to the Battery Gold Rush, ca. 21st century.

In the first Gold Rush, ca. 1849, many made fortunes, and many others lost riches. The new Battery Gold Rush will not be much different. So what factors should you be thinking about in your pursuit of the battery holy grail?

I will assume here that your battery technology is exceptional.You have tested it. It works in the laboratory. What I will address here is whether you and your investors will make money in this endeavor.

Five factors require consideration.

  • Are the economics of the battery market in your favor?

As a young graduate student several years back, I was constantly advised to move my thesis work away from silicon to gallium arsenide (GaAs). Known as III-V compounds for their position in the periodic table of elements, these new materials offered immensely better performance than silicon integrated circuits. Yet today, silicon dominates the semiconductor landscape simply because its economics far outweighed the economics of any other competing material system. There is a lesson here for emerging battery technologies to be economically viable from the get go.

As batteries increasingly become the energy source powering everything from smartphones to electric cars, one key economic metric to pay attention to is $/kWh: the cost per unit of energy stored within the battery. For the big manufacturers in Japan, Korea and China, the cost metric stands today somewhere between $100 and $150 per kWh.  It is forecasted to drop below $100 by 2025 at which point the cost of an electric car is equal to that of a traditional combustion engine vehicle. 

If your technology increases this cost, or your business model is based on a significant premium, then you are at risk of serious commercial headwinds. It does not mean that you will fail, but it means that the adoption of your products may be limited to niche markets, or that the rate of adoption may be too slow for your company to reach profitability.

  • Are you sure you have a working business model?

Most battery startup companies are exploring a wide variety of business models. Some favor building the entire battery. Others feel that manufacturing the materials are sufficient. A few others are content developing the technology and selling its underlying intellectual property. Which one is better? You will need to quickly validate the business model for yourself. 

If you choose to build the entire battery, will you be able to scale your manufacturing and distribution fast enough? Will you have the investment capital required to compete with the incumbents? Ramping up a battery manufacturing operation could cost in the billions of dollars. History has not been kind to battery startups. The rise and fall of A123 Systems is a business case worthy of serious study.

If, instead, you decide to build your business model on selling materials, your customers are now the battery manufacturers, the  vast majority of whom are based in Asia. Your technology may be differentiated but your customers are also your competitors. How will you protect your intellectual property? Will they pay you what you think is the value of your innovation? History also has not been kind here too. You will need to think out of the box to experiment and identify a working solution to the business model dilemma.

  • Will your product scale?

I have seen many amazing demonstrations in the laboratory of innovative battery materials. It is truly exciting to see this degree of innovation. But I am not aware that any of these recent battery material ideas have made it to volume production, at least not yet. As companies begin to ramp up manufacturing, many problems rear their ugly head. Uniformity of manufacturing across lots; meeting specifications on larger batteries; cost overruns; scarcity of available capital; investor fatigue are only a few examples of headwinds.

  • Do you understand your “exit” opportunities?

Your capital comes from investors who have an expectation of returns. A return of 5X or more is considered good; 10X or more is considered great.  So if you company requires $200 million to $500 million of capital to reach some degree of scaled operation (and hopefully profitability), then the expected “exit” valuation of your company is in the range of $1 billion to $5 billion. Congratulations if you achieved these valuations in your recent fundraising round. Very few companies can achieve this milestone. But will a potential buyer pay these valuations to acquire your company? Most incumbent battery companies in Asia have shown serious hesitation paying such valuations. You might, instead, choose to take the path of an initial public offering (IPO). A123 is such an example. But be careful, public markets have not been kind to company valuations with poor margins and tepid growth trajectories. In any case, the “exit” path — i.e., how you and your investor will turn your shares in the company into cash — is not well charted for battery companies. There are no easy precedents to follow and the path is fraught with incumbents who might choose to wait for you to reach desperation.

  • What about the Dragon?

China is rapidly becoming the battery manufacturing powerhouse. It means that Chinese battery manufacturers will likely be customers or partners of your company, or even potentially acquirers. Given the geopolitical tensions between the USA and China, it is difficult that the US Government will authorize the transfer of your technology or products to China under the export reform rules of the Defense Authorization Act of 2018. Will you choose to build your company anywhere else, may be in Europe or other geographies that will allow you to work with China? If so, you will need to figure that out early on in your endeavor.

My intent here is not to scare you off. The battery industry is in need of innovators. But innovation alone is not sufficient. Reaching financial success is essential to you, your employees and your investors. 

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.