Charging Up the Auto Industry

The world is ready for electric cars. What will it take to make them better and more affordable?

The Researchers

Seth Fletcher
Clare Grey
Jeff Sakamoto

IN 2006, THE DOCUMENTARY “Who Killed the Electric Car” chronicled the rise and fall of the General Motors EV1, the company’s ill-fated electric vehicle from the 1990s. Electric cars, the film suggested, would forever be just around the corner and never fully arrive in the U.S. market.

Tesla electric car
The Tesla electric vehicle wirelessly charging at the 2012 Consumer Electronics Show. (Credit: Doug Kline)
But electric and hybrid vehicles are now available from a slew of major car manufacturers. Among the highlights at this year’s iconic North American International Auto Show was the unveiling of two new Toyota plug-in hybrids, the Acura NSX hybrid concept car and several electric work trucks from Via Motors. Ford, the second largest U.S. automaker, showed off its Fusion Energi plug-in hybrid and promised to start production of a new Focus EV that it expects to be “the first five-passenger, all-electric car to achieve more than a 100 miles per gallon equivalent (MPGe) fuel efficiency rating.”

Following the auto show in January, The Kavli Foundation brought together three experts to discuss the future of electric cars, the promise of building ever lighter, more powerful batteries, and what is needed for the nascent electric car battery industry to continue to grow.

  • Seth Fletcher, Senior Editor at Popular Science and author of the 2011 book “Bottled Lightning: Superbatteries, Electric Cars, and the New Lithium Economy;"
  • Clare Grey, Professor in the University of Cambridge’s Department of Chemistry, and winner of The Royal Society’s 2011 Kavli Medal and Lecture, which she received for her work on the use of nuclear magnetic resonance methods to study the internal structure and workings of inorganic materials, including groundbreaking in situ studies on batteries and fuel cells (i.e., studies of the systems while they are functioning);
  • Jeff Sakamoto, Assistant Professor in the Michigan State University Department of Chemical Engineering and Materials Science and invitee to the 2011 Indonesian-American National Academy of Sciences’ Kavli Frontiers of Science symposium, largely on the basis of his work developing lithium ion batteries for the Mars Exploration Program.

The following is an edited transcript of the teleconference.

THE KAVLI FOUNDATION: At the end of 2011 there were several news stories about how a battery in the Chevy Volt, GM’s first mainstream electric vehicle since the EV1, caught fire several weeks after the car was subject to crash testing. To begin, generally speaking, just how safe are electric vehicles?

Clare Grey, Professor, University of Cambridge’s Department of Chemistry. (Courtesy: C. Grey)
Clare Grey, professor, University of Cambridge’s Department of Chemistry. (Courtesy: C. Grey)

CLARE GREY: Granted, there are a lot of different mechanisms by which batteries might catch fire. But in the case of the Volt, the battery was impacted and damaged pretty severely – bad enough that if you had owned the car, you would have had it immediately towed to the shop for repairs. If similar damage occurred in a gasoline engine or a gasoline tank, it wouldn’t be left just to sit there. The Volt that made news had sat for several weeks after the crash test before the battery caught fire. That scenario just isn’t very likely. Still, the issue of how smaller impacts might cause delayed damage, and not instantaneous fire, is something people are going to have to think about in these systems.

SETH FLETCHER: I was pretty dismayed by the news coverage of the Volt issue, which might lead one to believe that the cars are just spontaneously combusting while they drive down the road. Now, obviously, we need to figure out why that fire happened; it's something that needs to be taken seriously and scrutinized. However, the news coverage was completely out of proportion to reality. No one is ever going to leave a completely totaled electric car with a leaking, charged battery in their garage for weeks.

TKF: There are several ways batteries might be improved -- to allow drivers to go greater distances before needing to plug-in and recharge their car, to be made less expensive, to be made longer lasting. In terms of priority, where does safety fall on this list?

GREY: I’d say it’s Number 1.

JEFF SAKAMOTO: I agree 100 percent. In today’s day and age, any bodily harm, or really even any risk to human life, is a significant issue, and one that we’re bound to hear about given the Web, social media and so on. In fact, all this chatter about the Volt issue last year was a good thing, I think. It’s always best to scrutinize new technologies before they go mainstream. In many ways, what’s going on here is just the normal process of debugging a new technology before it becomes widespread.

FLETCHER: And part of this debugging has to do with how companies talk about these new cars to the public. When I was working on my book, I asked some GM executives what they would do if a house burned down with a Volt plugged in the garage, because eventually, if you get enough Volts on the road, something like that is inevitable, though it probably won’t have anything to do with the car. But even if the fire doesn’t have anything to do with the car, it would be a public relations nightmare. I’d say GM had its first electric car-related PR nightmare last year, and that the company handled it pretty well.

TKF: Dr. Grey, you received the 2011 Kavli Medal for your work using nuclear magnetic resonance experiments, basically the same technology used in medicine to give a real-time look inside the human body. What’s the benefit to studying working batteries compared to just taking batteries apart and studying their components separately?

GREY: The problem with batteries today is that they just don’t last that long. Think of your laptop battery, which actually is based on chemistry that’s not all that different from that in batteries in the current generation of electric cars. That laptop battery will probably need to be replaced in around two years, because eventually it loses is ability to hold its charge. Obviously that won’t do for electric cars. Using the spectroscopy and imaging technologies helps me understand how the materials work and why they eventually wear out and fail. I’m trying to understand the decomposition mechanisms that are important in the short and long term, and that means looking at batteries when they are in action, and when the chemical reactions are actually taking place.

TKF: What new battery technologies on the horizon are most promising?

Jeff Sakamoto
Jeff Sakamoto, Assistant Professor in the Michigan State University Department of Chemical Engineering and Materials Science (Courtesy: J. Sakamoto)

SAKAMOTO: There is much good work going on. Some of it is focused on exploring new battery configurations and chemistries. One, referred to as a “solid state” battery uses a solid ceramic electrolyte that can replace current, flammable liquid electrolytes. Other potentially interesting though challenging areas include research on lithium-air batteries. Researchers are also exploring how different electrode materials, particularly silicon, might be used to improve battery performance. When normalized by weight, silicon can store ten times more lithium compared to state of the art graphite anodes. However, while this has been demonstrated in the laboratory, there are practical issues such as cycle life and cost that need to be addressed.

GREY: There’s also really beautiful work being done on so-called redox flow batteries. Basically, these batteries pump an electrolyte solution or powder in and out of the battery. Most batteries today are closed, sealed systems, so you’re limited to the electrons you have in a contained space. Flow batteries get rid of that limitation. It’s a challenge to pump new material in and flush old material out of a battery, but if it can be solved, you could get lots more electrons out of a given battery. Again, more electrons out means cars with longer ranges, better performance and so on.

Seth Fletcher, Senior Editor at Popular Science and author of
Seth Fletcher, Senior Editor at Popular Science and author of "Bottled Lightning: Superbatteries, Electric Cars, and the New Lithium Economy" (Courtesy: S. Fletcher)
FLETCHER: For me, a journalist without specific technical training, it’s dicey territory to comment on potential future technologies. Every researcher seems to have his or her favorite. Some people adamantly believe that lithium-air will never work. Others believe it’s the future. I guess what’s most exciting for me is that there are so many smart people working on so many different, promising technologies, any one of which could potentially give us significant jumps in energy density – think of that as a proxy for range and performance -- over what we have today. And as far as what’s coming from manufacturers -- when I was working on the book, I interviewed Martin Eberhard, one of the Tesla Motors co-founders. He talked a lot about a new lithium-ion cell coming soon from Panasonic, which uses a silicon alloy in the anode to reach 4 amp-hours. I believe that’s the battery cell used in the forthcoming Tesla Model S, which has up to a 300-mile range. That car is going to be produced this year.

TKF: So, should people wait for these new technologies before considering an electric car?

SAKAMOTO: I think the current lithium-ion technology is really not that bad. It could fit the bill for electric vehicles for the next several years. I mean, look at the Nissan Leaf. It can go 100 miles on a single charge, which is pretty impressive, and a significant increase over what was available just a few years ago. The U.S. Department of Energy is funding lots of research on lithium-ion technology. The department has a four-part goal for lithium-ion batteries: to reduce cost, increase range, improve ability to tolerate wear and tear, and last longer. And progress is being made on all these fronts.

"It’s not only that the subject matter [of the battery industry] is very interesting, but also that the work appeals to students with an altruistic perspective. A lot of students want to improve society, and this seems to be a good way to do that." – Jeff Sakamoto

FLETCHER: Curren’t lithium-ion technology isn’t bad at all – it’s quite impressive – but American drivers are very hard to please. I also think it's safe to say that most people do not really understand what is possible with today’s technology – how these cars are supposed to be used or what's realistic right now. Tell people that the Volt has a 40-mile range and they are shocked because they think that’s not near enough. And then you explain that the car has a gas engine for backup, so the car is actually a plug-in hybrid. That's something that many people still haven’t heard. The fact is, there are people who say, "I will never buy an electric car until I can drive 500 miles on a single charge, and then plug-in to recharge in the middle of the night at a gas station in the Nevada desert.” And that's unrealistic.

Jeff Sakamoto with Aerogel
Jeff Sakamoto with some Aerogel Dielectric. (Courtesy: J. Sakamoto)

TKF: What about the electrical grid? Occasionally articles appear suggesting that if more and more electric cars are plugged in, the grid might be wrecked, or at least become unstable. Does this keep you up at night, Dr. Grey?

GREY: No, I must admit it doesn’t. There are other issues that worry me far more, including how to couple the increasing numbers of electric cars with new sources of renewable energy, including wind and solar. If more electric cars on the roads means we’ll need more capacity and storage of power on the grid produced by burning fossil fuels, which of course leads to carbon emissions and pollution, then that will be a problem. And there are more prosaic issues, too. What do you do if you live in a town in Europe and you don’t have a garage? There have been amusing stories about this in the British papers, but it’s a real issue. Lawsuits have already been filed by people in London who have tripped over charging cables coming out of windows to plug in electric cars parked on the street.

FLETCHER: Clare is right. The urban infrastructure issue is a much bigger deal than generating capacity of the grid. There was a story in The New York Times in December 2011 about charging stations in garages of high-end apartment buildings in Manhattan. It turns out many of these stations -- there are only about 50 in all -- aren’t used that often. Garage owners complain that there isn’t demand for these stations, which are expensive to install, but the reason is that potential electric car buyers are sitting on the sidelines until there are more charging stations. It’s a chicken-and-egg problem. There are a lot of potential early adopters in these fancy apartments and condos in New York and other cities who are excluded from owning one of these cars because of the lack of charging stations. That’s unfortunate.

2012 Ford Focus Electric Vehicle
The 2012 Ford Focus Electric Vehicle (Credit: Michael Gil)

TKF: Are the various chemical elements used in batteries abundant and fairly easy to access around the world? Is there a risk, for example, that the battery industry might be setting itself up to be dependent on elements that are difficult to mine and process, or are only available in unfriendly countries?

FLETCHER: I can talk about lithium. Lithium availability is not going to be a problem. It's relatively affordable and environmentally benign to extract. Most of it comes from Chile, which is a friendly, democratic country. There is a lot of lithium in Argentina and Australia. There is actually a very large deposit in the United States in Nevada in clay from which it is a little more expensive to extract than is the lithium in South America. But if the price of lithium goes up, extracting it here in the United States will make sense. There's a company called Western Lithium working on that.

GREY: And remember, too, we will learn to recycle. There’s no reason lithium can’t be pulled out of old batteries and put into new ones. There are various rare earth metals used in motors that are relatively scarce, and that scarcity is a much bigger issue.

TKF: It seems like the move to electric vehicles depends on at least three things -- fundamental research; go-to-market work of various companies; and the policy arena, including incentives, public funding and so on. Which of the three is most in need of work?

SAKAMOTO: I guess for me it’s a combination of all three. The Department of Energy says it wants to the reduce cost of lithium-ion batteries by a factor of four. At this point, that’s not about fundamental research but rather about applied research to improve manufacturing techniques. And at a more basic level, we just need to scale up the manufacturing industry. In Michigan we have the largest battery manufacturing company, A123 Systems, which makes about 30,000 batteries per year. A123 was financed with a big chunk of federal aid, nearly $250 million. President Obama wants 1 million electric vehicles on the road by 2015, a goal that I think is going to difficult to achieve unless we build more manufacturing plants. The Department of Energy has put $2 billion into advanced battery research in the last two years, but really, it’s going to take more than that.

FLETCHER: I worry most about the policy arena, frankly. There’s a ton of good research happening and the current slate of electric cars, particularly the Volt and the Leaf, are really quite good. But the move to electric cars is politically fraught since it involves displacing a lot of powerful entrenched interests. Jeff talks about the need for more battery manufacturing, but really, at the moment there might be too many such companies, at least until the cost of batteries comes down. What’s going to happen if one of those Department of Energy-funded battery companies goes out of business? You’ll probably have the Solyndra mess all over again even, though really, a market where companies’ fortunes wax and wane is just the natural cycle of things.

"I guess what’s most exciting for me is that there are so many smart people working on so many different, promising technologies, any of one of which could potentially give us significant jumps in energy density." – Seth Fletcher

GREY: Can I add something from the European perspective? Here, there is pretty strong legislation regulating carbon dioxide emissions. Basically, emissions are regulated across each manufacturer’s fleet of vehicles. So as a result, BMW and Mercedes, which of course make lots of cars and trucks with internal combustion engines, are also really pushing their electric and hybrid vehicle programs to reduce their fleets’ overall emissions. Now, BMW and Mercedes are luxury manufacturers, which means that their programs are bringing high-end electric and hybrid vehicles to market. And the good thing is, people are buying these cars. At the high-end of the market, it seems, people don’t mind paying a bit extra for electric or hybrid vehicles. In the most optimistic scenario, that demand will eventually trickle down into the lower-end markets, as well.

TKF: Dr. Grey and Dr. Sakamoto, the battery industry would also seem to depend on a pipeline of talented researchers and engineers. Are the best and brightest students interested in this work?

GREY: Absolutely. It’s such a great area to be in at the moment. I had a great team when I was based at Stony Brook University, where I still have an affiliation, and I have a great team in Cambridge. People are interested in getting involved at all levels, from high school all the way up to doctoral research and beyond.

SAKAMOTO: My experience has been similar. It’s not only that the subject matter is very interesting, but also that the work appeals to students with an altruistic perspective. A lot of students want to improve society, and this seems to be a good way to do that.

TKF: What’s the biggest story about electric or hybrid vehicles in the last year or two?

FLETCHER: That's an easy one: Electric cars became available. More specifically, the Leaf and Volt went on sale. It’s noteworthy that GM actually built the Volt. When the company announced it in 2007, people didn't necessarily think GM was serious, or didn't think that GM could do it. Then with the recession and financial collapse came the real danger that the company was going to go out of business completely. But GM was rescued by the federal government, and went on to build the car. A few years ago there were essentially no electric cars on the road in the United States. Now there are several thousand that people actually own, which is completely different than in the 1990s when people were leasing EV1s. Think about it: GM leased 800 EV1s over the course of three years. Last year alone, GM sold nearly 8,000 Volts. When people talk about the poor sales of these cars, it's all relative, because there were none of these cars until very recently. Now there are several thousand. And this all happened last year.

Clare Grey's Lab
Clare Grey's lab at the University of Cambridge, (Courtesy: C. Grey)

SAKAMOTO: This may be myopic on my part, since I’m here in Michigan, but I think the biggest story is the establishment of a U.S. battery industry, mostly based here in this state. Battery technology is now on the radar screen in any discussion of sustainable, green industries in the United States, and that’s a relatively new thing.

GREY: There has been a massive increase in funding to do applied research on batteries in the last two or three years. There is really a pretty balanced approach now to improve all parts of the manufacturing process, and to explore possible new chemistries. It’s really been an exciting few years.

TKF: If you rode the elevator with Steven Chu, the U.S. Secretary of Energy, and had 30 seconds to give advice about battery research and the battery industry, what would you say?

SAKAMOTO: Be patient. Some federally supported battery companies will live, some won’t. The industry is going to go through growing pains, which is natural. The key is to continue to drive down the cost of lithium-ion batteries so that electric cars can get a foothold in the United States. Beyond lithium-ion technology, make sure there is sustained research on next-generation energy storage technologies, too.

"This is a tenuous moment for electric and hybrid vehicles. Continuity of research funding is critical to keep things moving forward." – Clare Grey

FLETCHER: I was going to say “don’t quit your job,” but Jeff’s suggestion to be patient is better, or at least more polite and diplomatic.

GREY: I’d ask him to please ensure the continuity of research funding, if possible, and to emphasize funding that brings teams together from a variety of backgrounds. This is a tenuous moment for electric and hybrid vehicles. Continuity of research funding is critical to keep things moving forward.

TKF: Complete this sentence: Electric cars will have arrived, will have passed the tipping point, when...

FLETCHER: When there is a $30,000 Volt or a $23,000 Leaf. (Current sticker prices are $41,000 and $35,000, respectively.) Lowering the price is the key to increasing acceptance of these vehicles in the United States, I think.

SAKAMOTO: I agree about the importance of cars that are more affordable. But on a less serious note, I’d say electric cars will have passed the tipping point when NASCAR goes 100% electric. You know we’re crazy about NASCAR here in the United States.

GREY: When gas prices start to rise again, and then permanently keep creeping up, which seems all but inevitable. When that happens, the relative price of electric cars will all of sudden become much more appealing.


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