From horse-drawn carts to the industrial era of coal and steam; internal combustion to alternative fuels – our various means of propulsion have changed beyond recognition. The next instalment in the series is battery power.
This is the story of what is increasingly becoming the most important power source known to man.
Where It All Started
In 1780, Luigi Galvani – an Italian scientist – observed what he believed to be ‘animal electricity’. His experiment involved a frog’s leg being suspended from a brass hook, and when he touched it with an iron scalpel, it twitched.
Alessandro Volta, a friend of Galvani, was sceptical of the ‘animal electricity’ theory, believing it was the metals that were responsible. In 1800, he invented the first true battery.
It consisted of copper and zinc discs separated by cloth soaked in brine. A humble beginning for something that has shaped the modern world.
Phones, cameras, laptops, and cars are all prolific users of batteries, and the growth of the electric car market is making batteries yet more important still. And happily, none rely on frogs as a power source.
Broadly speaking, battery cells produce electricity by electrons flowing from a negative electrode to a positive one. An electric car will have many of these cells – sometimes even hundreds.
As you might imagine, having lots of battery cells does add quite a lot of weight to a vehicle. Therefore, batteries are arranged in flat ‘packs’, as close to the floor as possible to distribute weight evenly and provide a low centre of gravity.
“We are now able to pack about three times as many cells into the same space,” says David Labrosse, who oversees research and development at Kia, Europe. “This is mostly due to optimisation of the cooling system – we use fluid to cool the cells instead of air.”
The use of batteries as opposed to an engine reduces the need for lots of parts and components, meaning designers have fewer constraints. Cabins, therefore, can be more spacious and have more ‘open’ and even ‘lounge-like’ designs.
Talk of Money
Battery cost remains arguably the biggest barrier to consumer adoption, despite recent reductions. Costs have fallen from about $700 per kilowatt-hour (kWh) in 2009 to about $150 to $175 per kWh today, according to the Boston Consulting Group.
If a car is 64kWh, that is a substantial saving.
“Costs will continue to decrease as production ramps up and production processes get faster and more economical,” predicts Labrosse. “Cheaper battery components mean a cheaper car for consumers, more sales, and in turn, more investment in and development of the technology.”
Bloomberg New Energy Finance predicts that the purchase price of certain electric vehicles could reach parity with combustion-engine cars by the mid-2020s.
Batteries of Tomorrow
Falling prices, incentives, and planned government action have led McKinsey to anticipate that by 2040 about 70 percent of all vehicles sold in Europe (vans, trucks, and buses included) will be electric.
This increased uptake will be accompanied by more power, more range, faster charging times, and further cost reductions through economies of scale.
Labrosse predicts “Cell chemistry will continue to evolve, increasing the energy storage capacity of the material used. There will be smaller heat losses, quicker charging times, better regenerative braking, and more power.”
Solid-State of Play
One area widely mooted as the future of battery tech is solid-state batteries, which do away with the liquid electrolyte found in most batteries and replaces it with a solid one.
Heat in these solid-state cells is more easily controlled, making it simpler and cheaper to cool. There is also less need for bulky, heavy protective casing.
A lighter battery reduces the overall weight of the vehicle, meaning it needs less energy to move and the battery can be even smaller to achieve the same range.
“Safety, durability, and energy density could all make further steps forward as soon as we adopt solid-state batteries,” says Labrosse.
A Battery's Second Chance
The batteries in electric vehicles have it tough. If they aren’t being criticised for their range, they are being subjected to extreme operating temperatures.
After a decade or so, the time may come that a battery is no longer performing to the standards required by an EV. But it would be inefficient to just dispose of them.
While their materials can be recycled and reused, another model is ‘second-life batteries’. This is when the battery is left intact but removed from the car to be used for different applications.
These batteries can be used in homes as an energy source to balance the draw from the grid. One day, we could all be using ‘second life’ batteries – that started their lives in electric cars – to boil the kettle.
As fossil fuels edge closer to joining horses and steam as a “historical” power source, batteries are steadily gaining traction.
The electric age is upon us. At its heart, are batteries: lowering emissions and lessening the broader environmental impact of the car.