Ian Darwin, EVangelist: EVs - Electric Vehicles, including cars, buses, ships, and planes - are the clean future of transport.

Ian Darwin, EVangelist: EVs - Electric Vehicles, including cars, buses, ships, and planes - are the clean future of transport.

EV Batteries: Problems and Solutions

EV Batteries: Problems and Solutions

Batteries are the essential source for electric mobile power. You can’t get enough sunlight to power any production vehicle, although one very smart team did fly an ultralight airplane round the world on solar power.

Technically, a battery is a composite of two or more storage cells. At home, a single AA, C or D cell is not a battery, but a cell. In home use, the terms are (incorrectly) used interchangeably. But let’s be precise: a battery is a collection of cells harnessed together. A home flashlight may have two, three or four cells making up its battery. An electric car will have thousands of cells, usually divided into "battery modules". That said, let’s talk about the problems and solutions.

The issues around batteries appear to resolve to:

  • Increasing power, the better to compete with gasoline cars;

  • The human rights records of countries where some of the raw materials are mined;

  • What to do with the batteries when the car dies.

As far as increasing power, rarely does a week go by when we don’t hear about some laboratory breakthrough that will "revolutionize" battery power and thus range. Here’s just one example: https://www.inverse.com/innovation/researchers-develop-materials-that-can-double-electric-cars-driving-range Even Tesla is working on improving battery range: https://www.inverse.com/innovation/teslas-secret-battery-project-could-finally-push-evs-to-overtake-gas-cars They will probably talk about this at their upcoming Battery Day (expected in May, 2020).

The human rights issue is not as clear. There are some reserves of cobalt and lithium in modern countries with good labor protection (Canada, for one), but the majority of the world’s cobalt ore is found in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, a corrupt regime with no real protection for workers, and where child labor is unfortunately common. Reputable companies are working to reduce the amount of cobalt in their batteries, and to ensure that as much as possible comes from reputable supply chains.

The end-of-life problem is solved more easily. First, if the car dies while the batteries can still hold some reasonable amount of power - maybe a minimum of 50%, although 70-90% is typical - they can be used in stationary applications, where the slightly reduced output/weight calculation has no bearing. Both home and industrial energy storage - often coupled with solar or wind - are being built out of these batteries. Sometimes entire modules will be re-used. People with more time on their hands will dismantle modules and check the individual cells, putting the best ones into "refurbished modules" that go back into cars and the weaker ones either in modules for storage use, or directly to recycling.

And indeed, recycling is the final end stage for all cells. It makes no economic sense to put battery modules of any kind into landfill, anymore than to dump scratched-up gold jewelry into landfill. Both - like most metals - can be easily melted down for the input into a refinery that separates out the different elements to make into new products. Major EV makers like Nissan and Tesla and soon VW either have or are building up recycling capabilities of their own.

The last two topics - human rights and reuse/recycling - are covered in more details at ElecTrek.co.

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