Even as more and more electric vehicles, or EVs, appear on city streets, the limitations of their battery ranges prevent owners from taking these vehicles on long highway trips. The range is the distance a car can travel before it needs to stop and refuel, and current ranges for most EVs are about 80 to 120 miles. Newer models from Tesla can travel over 200 miles before being recharged, but these are prohibitively expensive, even with generous government subsidies to Tesla. It will take a battery breakthrough to make EV ranges comparable to conventional gasoline engines.
Researchers and manufacturers also have several other challenges to overcome in EV battery design. Recharging is slow and it can take several hours to fully recharge the battery, even at high speed public charging stations. Manufacturers have been looking for a battery breakthrough to extend EV range, and with some new types of batteries, especially lithium-metal, this seems within reach. Once the new designs become operational, EVs can become the car that everyone wants.
How a Battery Breakthrough Will Extend Electric Vehicle Ranges
For people looking to reduce their carbon footprint and live an environmentally sustainable lifestyle, electric cars have an undeniable appeal. They have no emissions of harmful greenhouse gases. The cost of fully charging an electric car is lower than fueling up a gasoline engine car. Depending on the source of electricity, electric cars can be run very cheaply, recovering the costs of the initial higher purchase price in a few years. As an added plus, running an electric car charged through a solar-powered electricity outlet is a step towards true energy sustainability and independence.
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With all of these advantages, electric cars have certain limitations when compared to highly fuel-efficient gas engine models. The range, or the maximum distance that can be traveled by a fully-charged electric car before it needs to be recharged, is considerably lower than traditional gas engines. This makes it difficult for many people, especially in the United States where distances are far, to opt for EVs.
Extending the Range of Electric Car Batteries
Even with innovations in battery technology, manufacturers like Nissan and Ford have only been able to extent range for their electric car models to 150 to 200 miles. Tesla models reaches ranges of over 200 miles, but they are the outliers. This makes electric cars a good choice for people who have short commutes and city driving on their daily schedule. But for anyone whose day involves driving 100 or even 200 miles, EVs are not a feasible mode of transportation.
The limited range combined with the lack of recharging infrastructure along major highways means that electric cars are not suitable for highway and long distance driving at this time. Many drivers rightly fear being stranded. This limits the feasibility of EVs as the primary vehicle for most drivers.
Another major constraint in regard to the batteries is their limited lifespan. They wear out over time and must be replaced. The lithium-ion batteries currently in use are expensive to replace and extremely dangerous if they catch fire. also Facilities for the disposal of used batteries, which are highly toxic, must be developed, or EVs cannot be considered in any way a “green” option.
Electric car batteries in current use are also slow to recharge. It can take two to three hours to fully charge a battery, even with the faster Level 2 charging option at public charging stations. In general, EV owners tend to charge their cars overnight when they are parked at home. The slow pace of charging EV batteries and the lack of a widespread public access recharging infrastructure are other limitations that must be overcome.
Yet another constraint to the widespread adoption of EVs is the high cost of batteries. This is true of both the original battery, which contributes to the high sticker price, and the replacement batteries, which must be installed within anywhere from five to ten years.
Goals for a Battery Breakthrough
For all of these reasons, car manufacturers and researchers have been focused on a battery breakthrough that can extend the range and as well as the energy density or storage capacity of the battery. Some manufacturers have added batteries in order to extend the range but this increases the weight of the car, which further decreases the range. The other option is to increase the capacity for the battery.
Better storage capacity is in fact the key to the widespread use of sustainable energy. From solar and wind to EVs, the ability to store sustainably-generated electric power is the key to reducing vehicle emissions and other greenhouse gases. Indeed, this is the key to a truly sustainable future.
The challenge for designers and researchers is to increase the range of the battery in a manner that does not increase the weight and hence drag on the vehicle. Solutions will have to focus on these goals:
1. Improve energy density2. Reduce costs of original and replacement batteries3. Reduce charging times for EV batteries4. Extend the useful life of the battery5. Ensure safety6. Environmentally safe disposal of used batteries
A battery breakthrough that meets all of these goals is something of the Holy Grail in the world of EV design. Researchers and manufacturers are in hot pursuit of this goal.
New Types of Electric Vehicle Batteries
Regular car batteries are known as SLI, or starting, lights and ignition batteries, after their three major functions. Electric vehicle (EV) batteries are different, in that they must provide sustained power over time. Also, they must also have a high energy density in relation to their weight. Most EV batteries at this time are lithium-ion or lithium-polymer. Both have a high energy density, where energy density stands for the amount of energy stored per unit volume.
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This makes them lighter and gives them a longer range. However, there are several disadvantages to these types of batteries. Lithium-ion batteries are relatively expensive, and constitute the major part of the higher cost of electric cars. Lithium ion polymer batteries overcome some limitations of lithium batteries but remain prohibitively expensive.
In Development: New Types of EV Batteries
Among the new types of EV batteries, lithium-sulfur batteries can hold a greater charge. This can be as much as three to five times as the storage capacity of lithium-ion batteries. Lithium-sulfur batteries have a high energy density, storing more energy per unit volume. Despite the advantages, however, lithium-sulfur batteries still need to meet safety standards.
Specifically, they have to eliminate the risk of exploding on contact with moisture in the air. While generally safe, any manufacturing defects could be risky.
Further, over time, lithium-sulfur batteries lose their capacity to hold a charge and must be replaced. As with the lithium-ion batteries currently in use, this can be expensive. At this stage, these limitations means that the lithium-sulfur batteries are not commercially viable.
Another battery breakthrough might come from the type of nickel-metal hybrid batteries that are also used for computers and medical equipment. These have a longer life cycle and are safe. However they too have the disadvantages of lithium-ion and lithium-sulfur batteries. The costs are high and they tend to lose charge over time.
A variation is the nickel-cobalt battery in development at BASF in Germany. It could potentially be fully recharged in as much time as it takes to fill a gas tank, with a range of 300 miles. This makes it comparable to conventional gasoline cars. Combined with zero-emissions, it may be the battery breakthrough that makes EVs a feasible vehicle for millions of car owners.
Other efforts for a battery breakthrough by manufacturers like Toyota and Fisher are focused on developing graphene-based energy storage. Storage is in fact the key to successful adoptions of all forms of sustainable energy across a variety of applications, from solar and wind to EVs.
Other Problems in EV Battery Production and Disposal
Other problems in terms of production of EV batteries are sourcing of materials and disposal. Most of the materials currently used in production are sourced from a single location, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). DRC is the site of a decades-long civil war and suppliers may be associated with human rights violations. Further, EV batteries contain toxic materials that must be disposed of in a manner that does not pollute the environment.
Electric vehicles are appealing to people seeking a sustainable lifestyle for a number of reasons. They have no harmful emissions, and cost less than gasoline-powered vehicles to operate. If connected to an outlet powered by sustainably generated electricity, they can achieve zero emissions and low cost or even free operation. However, due to the limited range of EV batteries and the problems associated with recharging them, they are not yet at the stage where they can be the primary vehicle for any car owner.
This is why a battery breakthrough is the key to making EVs a practical choice for most vehicle owners. Battery design has to meet a number of goals, including higher energy density to increase range, lower costs, quicker charging times, and a longer useful life. Better energy storage is the key to increasing adoption of sustainable energy models.