Do you remember the Duracell bunny? The anthropomorphic battery powered bunny was made its first appearance 1973 and has been present ever since in the worldwide advertising of Duracell; its bunnies kept going long after other batteries stopped.
For most of us our first contact with batteries came with the ubiquitous Double A or Triple A batteries that power our gadgets… often, like the Duracell Bunny, children’s toys. Who would have thought then that batteries would transform the planet? Ultimately it was Lithium-Ion batteries used in Laptop computers from the 1990s that became the precursor of the batteries now used in EVs (Electric Vehicles).
In 2006, Elon Musk’s presented the prototype of the first Lithium-Ion driven electric vehicle, a roadster. Over the next six years, Tesla produced 2,450 vehicles based on the chassis of a Lotus Elise. It was the start of the EV (electric vehicle) revolution that is on the cusp of transforming the global automotive industry. With Europe last year having breached the 10 percent level of market share of new car sales, EVs are giving every sign of moving into the early ‘S’ curve of exponential growth.
Subsequently there have been two main iterations of the batteries used in EVs. The Tesla Model 3, the first volume production EV in 2017, used a 2170 form battery (21mm x 70). Now they are being replaced by Tesla’s own batteries in the form of a substantially larger 4680 battery (46mm x 80mm). These are baked into foam to form a structural pack.
Tesla’s novel ‘skateboard’ configuration now forms the central platform of the chassis of Tesla’s new vehicles. It has been a revolutionary development in automobile construction that other companies are rushing to copy. Because of its weight saving and simplification of manufacture, Tesla’s chassis has been described by Toyota’s engineers as a ‘thing of beauty.’
Since the launch of Tesla’s roadster, the advance in battery technology have been spectacular. Since 2008 the power density of batteries has increased from 50 to 500 in Wh/LWatt-hours-per-litre. In the laboratory batteries density of 711 Wh/L has been achieved and further advances can be expected. Meanwhile costs have fallen from US$1,000 per kilowatt hour to US$100 – a price that is expected to at least halve by 2030.
Indeed, it is only the rapid advance in price and performance of batteries that has enabled the EV car to move from the status of cult to mainstream transport. Over the last decade the upper range of EVs has increased from 424 km to the 648 km for the Tesla Model S. However, the recently announced Lucid Air, an American EV start up, which in April won World Luxury Car of the Year Award, has a range of over 800 km.
It is a China, determined to solve the chronic air pollution problems its cities, which has made the global EV revolution possible. The Chinese government placed its bets on EVs and did the hard yards in terms of subsidising the development of electric cars. CATL (China Amperex Technology Ltd.), a company founded in 2011 in Ningde, Fujian Province has led the way in advancing battery technology. In just twelve years CATL has grabbed a 40.9% share of the market. Not resting on its achievements CATL is reported to have developed a new Lithium ‘light’ Sodium battery which is expected to go into production this autumn. It is a measure of CATL’s importance in the global transition to electric energy that its market capitalisation is double that of VW.
A distant second to CATL is BYD (Build Your Dram) with a 15.6% share. Based in Xi’an, Shaanxi Province, BYD, like Tesla, has built a vertically integrated auto company to become the world’s second largest producer of EVs and batteries. Chinese battery producers account for 80% of the market. In 2022, there was a 70% increase to 488 GWh (Gigawatt/hours) deployed on the road. IClima Earth, a London based fintech company, estimates that battery demand will increase more x5 by 2030. To reach the IPCC (International Panel on Climate Change) carbon net zero target in 2050 it is estimated that the demand for battery power could increase 25 times from today’s levels.
Following the lead of BYD and Tesla there is now a race on by auto manufacturers to produce their own batteries; reportedly there are 20 new battery factories in planning in the US. The likely commoditisation of battery production will reduce prices and increase demand.
The future demand for batteries does not just come from automobiles. Large scale power storage is needed to smooth out the intermittency problems of electricity grids that are increasingly using solar and wind power. Domestic household demand for solar/battery storage combinations is also growing rapidly. A storage market in its infancy is again being led by Tesla. Some argue that the demand for stationary battery packs for power companies, corporations, and households could eventually exceed the demand from EVs.
Other major industries that will be enabled by the increasing power density of batteries. Drones and VTOLs (Virtual Take off and Landing craft) will be powered by batteries. Already Eviation, a start-up company founded in Israel, has built and successfully flown a 9-passenger aircraft (or 1,179 kg payload) with a 250-mile range. Orders have already been placed by four airlines including DHL. Batteries will also power humanoid robots that Tesla is already reported to be training to work on its assembly lines. Elon Musk has forecast that humanoid robots will eventually outnumber people.
Inevitably battery sceptics have emerged. It has been said that there is not enough Lithium to sustain a battery economy? But the wonder of the market price mechanism is that when speculation drove the price of Lithium up x6 in 2021/2 it was miraculously discovered that there were Lithium resources everywhere with mining companies eager to get to work. Since peaking in November 2022, the spot price of Lithium has fallen by 70%. Although the lack of Lithium Hydroxide could cause a supply bottleneck, the private sector will again provide the solutions. Thus, Tesla has almost finished completion of its own dedicated plant in Texas.
Unsurprising, rapid growth in battery usage has brought environmental concerns. Lithium is highly toxic and it seems clear from some reports that there is widespread illegal dumping of batteries in underdeveloped countries. This will change. Expended batteries have value. Some 95% of their materials, Lithium included, can be recycled.
JB Straubel, Tesla’s former CTO (Chief Technical Officer), is the CEO and founder of Redwood Materials which has developed processes to reclaim 95% of the materials of defunct Lithium batteries. Straubel believes that his company will produce reclaimed metals at half their cost – thereby creating a virtually circular supply chain. This will produce a much lower environment cost than fossil fuels such as oil, gas and coal which by their nature are ‘one time’ usable resources. As the Environment and Transport NGO has reported, a renewable resources economy requires many hundred times less mining than an economy based on fossil fuels.
Under pressure from the environmentalist consensus on climate change, it is now clear that the oil economy is transiting to the new energy forms comprising wind, solar and battery. Increasingly cost is in its favour. Like the Duracell bunny, the battery economy will go on and on.
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