The Great Battery Debate: Good Enough or Breakthrough Needed?

With the help of four outside experts, The Atlantic's Future of Energy report looked at the future of a key component of our possible future transportation system: the batteries that power electric cars.

energy_bug_1.png We've had a running discussion this week about the importance of battery breakthroughs to the future of the electric car. We pulled in Shai Agassi, head of Better Place, Dave Vieau, CEO of battery maker A123 Systems, battery researchers Ilan Gur and Davidl Danielson at the Department of Energy's Advanced Research Projects Agency, and David Kirsch, a leading historian of electric vehicles.

Gur and Danielson's post provides some excellent context about the history of battery development. They note that battery innovation was an absolutely fundamental part of the rise of the gadgets we all know and love. Those sleek tablets depend on the constantly improving variations on the lithium-ion battery.

To get a sense for just how revolutionary lithium ion has been, consider that the nickel-cadmium ("NiCad") battery which powered [Nokia's early cellphone] the Cityman was barely half the size and weight of the first rechargeable battery technologies ever commercialized in the 1800's. In contrast, a mere 20 years of lithium ion development has driven nearly a 5-fold improvement, and at a significantly lower cost point.

The market demand for better and better batteries from the consumer electronics space pulled the technology far enough along that electric vehicles with over 100 miles of range. Unfortunately, that performance comes with a price, and it doesn't make the cars the equivalents of their gasoline-powered brethren.

"Even with the latest lithium ion batteries, equipping a vehicle with 100 miles of electric driving range requires a battery pack that costs upwards of $15,000, weighs about 500 pounds, and takes up a lot of precious space," Gur and Danielson wrote.

They think it's fairly clear that some kind of battery breakthrough is necessary -- and possible.

Hard to imagine a game-changer in EV batteries? Just keep in mind that after its release in 1991, Li-ion technology quickly took off to ultimately capture the entire market for portable electronics. And just a few years earlier, in the mid-1980s, nobody saw it coming.

Electric vehicle historian David Kirsch isn't quite so confident about the prospects of battery innovation. He notes that in the electric vehicle space, there's always been a "better battery bugaboo." There has been a widespread belief that better batteries were what would solve the EV problem.

According to [Department of Energy chief Steven] Chu, the super-battery -- one that could affordably and sustainably power say a Ford Fusion 450 miles on a single charge -- is almost here: "It's not like it's 10 years off in the future.... It might be five years off.... It's soon!" Sounds good, but the super-battery has been five years away for more than 100 years. Seriously.

It's not that Kirsch doesn't think that major changes can happen within the transportation system, but he doesn't think that getting the precise right set of performance characteristics for the electric vehicle battery is the most important factor in their success. He supports broader based reform to reduce our dependence on oil for transportation.

I'm most excited about new business models like Better Place's battery exchange system that eliminate "range anxiety." I'm excited about plug-in hybrids that use off-the-shelf battery technology to increase convenience and efficiency at marginal cost. And I'm excited about new mobility concepts like car- and ride-sharing that challenge long-standing behavioral assumptions and create value in new ways. What do all these new concepts share? They have nothing to do with the battery.

Shai Agassi, CEO of Kirsch-favorite, Better Place, made his case today for his company's business model. In a model that once worked for The Electric Vehicle Company, the first organized car concern in America, Better Place is setting up the infrastructure to hot-swap batteries out of cars. The way Agassi puts it, you buy the car but not the battery, which is actually how you buy your gasoline-powered car, too.

By separating the ownership of the car and the battery and providing consumers with the network and infrastructure to conveniently charge the battery when parked -- or switch the battery in less time than it takes to refuel on longer drives -convenience is attained. Price the car without the battery at purchase, and the rest as you drive and the electric car enjoys the same buying model as a gasoline car - and the electric car proves cheaper today and progressively cheaper to own and operate with time.

Better Place, then, is engineering around the limitations of today's batteries rather than trying to fix the batteries themselves. With his model, incremental improvements in battery performance would be just fine.

And that was the point made by Dave Vieau, CEO of batterymaker A123 Systems. Batteries have gotten good enough to give electric cars a chance at widespread adoption. He noted the many problems associated with our dependence on foreign oil, and presumably if such costs were accurately accounted for, electric vehicles with today's batteries would look fantastic from a societal perspective.

Innovation in batteries is obviously a big topic, and I don't think we settled it this week. I hope we did give you a good perspective on the state of play and the positions of the various players.

One thing I'd add to the discussion, as I noted in a video I posted today, is that I'm very optimistic about materials science. While people used to do experiments on coming up with new battery materials in the physical world. More and more materials science work can be modeled on computers, greatly speeding up the discovery and characterization of new materials. In science and the consumer marketplace alike, any time you can hitch your wagon to Moore's Law, which describes the exponential cost declines and power increases of computing, it's a good thing.

Image: Flickr/tomblois.