Large Battery Breakthrough

To no one’s surprise, there’s been some news lately about both a (potential) BBB (Big Battery Breakthrough) as well as RCH (Really Cheap Hydrogen).

Starting with the BBB, we have Japan’s Sekisui Chemical develop Silicon based 600 km range battery:

Sekisui Chemical has developed a material that can triple the capacity of lithium ion batteries, allowing electric vehicles to travel about 600km on a single charge — roughly as far as gasoline-powered cars can go without refilling.

The new material stores electricity using silicon instead of conventional carbon-based materials. The company’s silicon alloy overcomes the durability issue that had kept silicon from being used.

Sekisui Chemical also developed a new material for the electrolyte, which conducts electricity within the batteries. This eliminates the need for equipment to inject liquid electrolyte into batteries, stepping up battery production by 10-fold.

The company believes that the new material can bring battery production costs down to just above 30,000 yen ($290) per kilowatt-hour, a decrease of more than 60 percent from around 100,000 yen ($976) today, according to a report in Nikkei.

Sekisui Chemical plans to begin sample shipments to domestic and overseas battery manufacturers as early as next summer, with mass production to kick off in 2015. It is targeting annual sales of 20 billion yen by fully entering the business of automotive battery materials.

The first rule of reading such articles is to always remember that going from “Hey! Look what I made work in the lab!” to “You can buy it in the local car showroom/web site right now, at a less-than-excruciatingly high price” is a very, very difficult path. There’s almost no end of perverse things that can happen to trip up a new technology, from expensive materials and processes (including yield and scaling issues) to no end of political hassles, as in trying to get enough of Magic Ingredient X from a source that doesn’t want to sell it. (Sometimes it’s a wonder that any product more complex than a Slinky ever gets to market in mass quantities.) How will this particular breakthrough translate from lab to market? I have no bloody idea, and neither does anyone not working on it. Hell, I’d wager that most of the people working on it don’t know the answer to that question, simply because they’re experts in chemistry or packaging or materials science or whatever, and not economics and politics.

The second rule is to be on the lookout for hints about availability and price. The article makes it sound like this is not yet another case of vaporware, as it mentions samples reaching manufacturers in just a few months and production in 2015. But the price issue isn’t so rosy. That $290/kWh of capacity is certainly not the major step-change improvement we plug-in car geeks have been pining away for since, well forever. My understanding is that battery prices in production quantities are already under $400/kWh, so a roughly 25% reduction, while welcome, isn’t going to reshape the competitive landscape. On a car with a 24kWh battery pack, that’s a cost reduction of $2,640. Again, I’d rather have that cost drop than shun it, but it’s not going to get most of my neighbors into an EV overnight.

Another factor to consider is the much smaller battery volume, which is a nice ancillary benefit as it makes it much easier for EV makers to avoid the huge humps in some models (like the Focus EV).

So, is this the BBB we’ve all fantasized about? Probably not, but it sounds like a nice step in the desired direction.

And I would add that I’m still confident that somewhere, sometime very soon, we will see the BBB, simply because the economic benefits would be almost incalculable. Between turbo charging the EV movement and turning intermittent renewable energy into dispatchable power, the market for a “killer battery” technology is virtually unlimited for the first several decades after the breakthrough.

And then, there’s hydrogen: New formula for fast, abundant hydrogen production may help power fuel cells:

Scientists in Lyon, a French city famed for its cuisine, have discovered a quick-cook recipe for copious volumes of hydrogen (H2).

The breakthrough suggests a better way of producing the hydrogen that propels rockets and energizes battery-like fuel cells. In a few decades, it could even help the world meet key energy needs—without carbon emissions contributing to the greenhouse effect and climate change.

In a microscopic high-pressure cooker called a diamond anvil cell (within a tiny space about as wide as a pencil lead), combine ingredients: aluminum oxide, water, and the mineral olivine. Set at 200 to 300 degrees Celsius and 2 kilobars pressure—comparable to conditions found at twice the depth of the deepest ocean. Cook for 24 hours. And voilà.

Where to begin? Microscopic cooker? Diamond anvil? Olivine and aluminum oxide? Heating to 200C to 300C? Does any of this sound, how shall I put this delicately, affordable or scalable? It sure doesn’t sound that way to me.

The only way to produce hydrogen at industrial scale now is by reforming natural gas or electrolyzing water. The first produces about 5.5 kg of CO2 for every kg of H2, and the second takes hideous amounts of electricity. And in either case, you then have to burn a lot of energy to compress the hydrogen to cram it into a 5,000 psi tank inside your vehicle. And even that’s assuming that you’re doing the hydrogen production in the gas station and not at some remote site and piping(!) or trucking(!!!) it to the filling station.

The longer this little drama between batteries and hydrogen goes on, the less likely it is that hydrogen will be a major player in the long run. For one thing, batteries are getting significantly cheaper, with one estimate being that they dropped 40% in cost from 2010 to 2012. So hydrogen is aiming for a quickly moving target. But even if you assume someone makes a wicked good hydrogen breakthrough today, and they find a way to generate it at absurdly low cost and without any additional environmental issues, like the CO2 emissions from natural gas reforming, then we’re still on the short end of the stick regarding infrastructure. Building out a hydrogen transport and refueling infrastructure would be hideously expensive. By comparison, EV recharging stations are dirt cheap. For example, Rochester, NY just started installing the first of 24 EV chargers at a total cost of $285,000 — call it $12,000 each. Hydrogen stations are currently about 4 million dollars each, with hopes to get the price down to 2 million. And that’s not taking into account all the EV drivers, like me, who have never used a cheap, public charging port and simply recharge from a home outlet.

Please don’t mistake my comments here as a sign that I hope hydrogen fails. I would dearly love to see both EVs and HFCVs (hydrogen fuel cell vehicles) enjoy wild success and battle it out in the marketplace for years as drivers are happily reducing their marginal carbon emissions to practically zero. But the cost/infrastructure deck is so heavily stacked against hydrogen that it’s ever harder to justify spending more money on it as a motor vehicle fuel instead of using those funds to subsidize EVs or build additional publicly available EV chargers.

Photo Credit: Battery Breakthrough/shutterstock