An op ed was recently posted on the BBC website suggesting that Elon Musk’s most important business would not be his car, Space X, public transport or tunneling companies but his somewhat more boring involvement in the advancement of battery technologies.
Batteries – rechargeable or otherwise – have always had a love hate relationship with anything electrical. For older folk reading this, you will recall the days of using a pencil to manually rewind your cassettes back to your favourite song in order to preserve battery life in your Sony Walkman’s. Fast forward to today and virtually every generation is forever concerned – almost on a sub-conscious level – with where they’ll find a charging point to juice up their mobile phones, tablets and laptops. The convenience of having batteries as a form of energy storage is irrefutable, but developing a battery that will last longer on a single charge than what people actually need is the ultimate quest. Electric vehicles are no different, with the chemistry of rechargeable lithium-ion batteries constantly being tweaked to improve range thus mitigating both the time between each charge and the time needed to charge.
The beeb article highlights the recent announcement by the Chinese, Tesla-providing, battery maker CATL and their new “Million Mile” battery. As a headline, this makes for compelling news. This doesn’t mean that the battery will provide a range of a million miles (!) but means that the battery has a useful lifetime of a million miles before needing a new one. While this is good news, particularly from an environmental standpoint, I question whether having a battery in your car that will last 16 years is a game changer. With lease deals set up the way they are currently, people get new cars every 3 or 4 years. The idea that one component of your car – albeit a critical one – will last 16 years won’t be enough to convince people to not only buy out their leased car at the pre-determined balloon payment price, but then hold onto that same car for another 13 or so years.
Meanwhile, the concern that cobalt – a key metal used in batteries for EVs, of which the majority comes from the Democratic Republic of the Congo – is being mined unethically and irresponsibly remains a major point of contention (and rightly so). As such, battery makers such as CATL are trying to develop batteries less reliant on cobalt. However, advancements have been slow as evidenced by Tesla’s recent signing of a long term contract with Glencore Plc to secure its cobalt supply. Glencore, unsurprisingly, mines its cobalt in the Congo. Ouch.
Make no mistake, I’m all for the advancement of battery technology to drive more zero-emission vehicles on our roads to help clean up our air. And yet range and charging convenience (both infrastructure and time needed to charge) remain the biggest roadblocks to mass EV adoption.
My laptop is about to run out of juice, so best I quickly find a socket to recharge…
As always keep calm and drive on.