What Killed the Electric Car?

Problems With Lithium-Ion Batteries and Other Types Have Significant Implications for Electric Vehicles and Renewable Power

By Dan Hebert

As a technical professional working at a machine or robot builder, one of your main tasks is to apply various current and emerging technologies to improve your company's products. This naturally makes you well aware of the power of technology, and also of its limitations. Unfortunately, the general public and the governments that rule them don't always share your awareness, particularly when it comes to things that technology can't do, such as make a decent battery.

Despite billions of dollars in research expenditures over the past few decades, batteries still can't store significant amounts of electricity for long periods of time at a reasonable cost and efficiency. The goal of a much better battery has been tantalizingly close for decades, but it's never been quite reached, and it never will be because of some of the basic laws of science.

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Although a battery looks like a solid-state device, it's instead a miniature and self-contained chemical plant. Unfortunately, that means that it doesn't and can't follow Moore's Law, but instead is limited to increasingly marginal improvements. And, batteries tend to do unpleasant things when pushed to their limits, like catch on fire (see the Boeing Dreamliner's lithium-ion batteries, if you need convincing).

Simply put, "Lithium-ion batteries are the problem child of modern electronics" states Popular Mechanics, with problems that include wear over time and significant degradation of already unacceptable performance. And the problems extend to other applications besides electronics, as many of them use lithium-ion batteries or other battery types that share the same issues.

This has significant implications for electric vehicles and renewable power, two areas where wrongheaded government decisions based on the unattainable goal of a much better battery are costing its citizens billions worldwide each year.

Although a battery looks like a solid-state device, it's instead a miniature and self-contained chemical plant. That means it doesn't and can't follow Moore's Law.

– Dan Hebert

Forget the electric car, because the batteries never will perform at a level that would allow electric cars to make a significant impact on the motor vehicle industry. Tiny Tesla still is losing money despite a government subsidy of up to $45,000 for each vehicle sold. During a face-to-face conversation with one of Tesla's founders a few years ago, he told me off-the-record that the main problem with the electric car concept was the astronomical cost of its lithium-ion batteries. Despite some cost reductions, the same problem exists today.

The answer to the chronic problem of pollution caused by motor vehicles won't be found with electric cars and better batteries, but instead with other solutions that are being crowded out of the marketplace by government subsidies and mandates for electric vehicles.

Vehicles powered by natural gas are one solution, with both compressed natural gas and liquefied natural gas vehicles up and running, particularly for commercial and industrial use. Natural gas at the moment is about $2 per gallon cheaper than gasoline on a fuel-equivalent basis, and generates significantly lower levels of emissions.

Another great solution being limited by the unattainable chimera of a practical electric car is the hybrid automobile. How many hybrids could be sold in California if politicians could learn just a little science, and remove their truly insane and incredibly expensive mandate that will require one out of seven cars sold in the state to be plug-ins or full electrics by 2025?

Intermittent renewables like land-based wind and solar are fast reaching the limits of their contributions to the electric grid, as the power they produce can't be efficiently stored for times when the sun don't shine and the wind don't blow.

Utilities are expected to provide near 100% backup for renewables in the form of mostly conventional generating sources, such as natural gas-fired turbines, raising the real cost of power produced by intermittent renewables to astronomical levels. That's why wind and solar will continue to require huge subsidies.

But better solutions are already in use, relying on non-intermittent sources of renewable power from tides, waves and offshore wind. The main restraints on the growth of these technologies are the mandates and subsidies for land-based wind and solar.

The bottom line for us all is that batteries aren't going to get much better, and society would be better served by removing government subsidies and mandates for technologies that depend on a much better battery.

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  • <p>"Despite billions of dollars in research expenditures over the past few decades"</p> <p>But most of that money has not been used to fund scientists and engineers conducting a coordinated research campaign. Instead, the money has been trousered by executives at the dozens of private and publicly listed companies that are CLAIMING their battery will be ready real soon.</p> <p>They are following the tried and proven NEW INVENTION SCAM aka GREEN WIDGET </p> <p>Here is the best explanation that I've seen. <a href="http://www.metabunk.org/threads/debunked-v3solars-spinning-solar-panel-cone-spin-cell-coolspin-scam.1166/">http://www.metabunk.org/threads/debunked-v3solars-spinning-solar-panel-cone-spin-cell-coolspin-scam.1166/</a></p> <p>"There's a type of scam out there that's being going on for at least 100 years. A company claims to have invented or discovered something that will make a lot of money. Quite often this will be in the field of energy, although we see them more and more in the field of weather control and information technology. The company can demonstrate research, they will often hold one or more patents on the technology, and they will have some kind of prototype that does not actually fully work, but they claim is a demonstration of the proof of concept. They won't reveal all the details, despite having filed patents, because they either don't want people to steal their ideas, or they claim it's too early, and more research needs to be done.</p> <p>What they are looking for though, is investors. They will talk about the huge potential market, and hence the huge amount of money to be made. They will get people to invest in their company. The technology will go nowhere slowly, and eventually the principals will withdraw, and the investors will end up with nothing.</p> <p>The scam works because it's not illegal to be wrong, unless you actually know you are wrong. So if you think you've discovered a form of free energy, it's perfectly legal to set up a company to research and develop the technology. It's quite legal to solicit investment based on what you think is correct science - even if it does turn out to be wrong, and the investors lose all their money. They took a risk, they lost. It's quite legal to pay yourself and the other principals a large salary.</p> <p>So all you have to do to run such a scam is to never admit you knew it was a scam. You have to pretend you believe in the technology. Then when it fails you simply keep insisting that you thought it worked, and you were sorry you didn't get enough time to work out the kinks.</p> <p>Then of course there are those people who actually ARE convinced that their technology works. There are plenty of people who think they actually have discovered something new, and they just need a bit more research to make money from it."</p>


  • <p>You overlooked a potential automotive power source - fuel cells, but there is the issue of storing hydrogen and no fueling infrastructure. A parallel hybrid, like the Prius, still requires batteries though they need not be as large. A series hybrid, like the Volt, is really an electric vehicle that carries an on board generator, and uses a large expensive battery. Neither suffers from the range limitations of a pure EV. Unlike a parallel hybrid, the Volt can function for an limited range as an EV, where as a parallel hybrid uses the electric motor to aid in starting from a stop, meaning the hydrocarbon powered engine need not be as large. As for non-intermittent renewable energy sources, I would love to see more use of tidal or wave or water current (not dam based hydro) based sources. Interesting reading: <a href="http://www.eia.gov/forecasts/aeo/er/electricity_generation.cfm.">http://www.eia.gov/forecasts/aeo/er/electricity_generation.cfm.</a> Based on that document, new generating capacity will all be natural gas as that is the most cost efficient. Off shore wind is the 2nd most expensive, largely due to capital costs, whereas hydro, I guess defined as gravity driven water, is right in the mix but location limited. I have seen designs for water current based generators. It would be interesting to see where they fit in the equation. </p>


  • <p>I was looking forward to the "basic laws of science". Instead, this is a political piece. I agree about limited government but do not agree that the unsupported conclusion that batteries will never get better. Yes, batteries rely on chemical reactions. So does combustion.</p>


  • <p>Dan, your article is one of the most stupid article I've ever read. Maybe is time for you to retire. You really don't know much about the subject, you're wrong on all the topics. (Moore's law do apply to batteries. Tesla don't have "government subsidy of up to $45,000 for each vehicle sold". Hybrids are only good at protecting Big Auto legacy.) Regards, Thomas</p>


  • <p>No science here, just more BS. You see, MY opinion (not backed here by any more solid science than is displayed in the original article) is that there is room for fivefold improvement in battery technology based in the near term on increased surface or reactive area and increased effective utilization of the bulk of the chemical in the same size and weight package and longer term on (as yet undeveloped) physical/chemical systems and packaging architectures. I was looking forward to becoming educated on this topic or at least seeing some actual references to these 'laws of science' that the author claims support his point. Instead just the blatherings of another gas car zealot. I've owned and driven both gas and electric cars and my actual experience is that neither of them is as good or as bad as the zealots would have you believe. Will the electric car ever replace the gas car for all applications ? No, never. But on the other hand SOMETHING needs to replace the gas car for many of today's uses, before we choke ourselves to death with our own exhaust, and the electric even at the present state of the art is a viable contender for a useful replacement technology. It also unfortunately makes a wonderful political football and sinkhole for investor money. </p>


  • <p>Some science for the purpose of carrying the discussion further. Please point out errors where they exist. GIVEN: Based on actual experience: 23 mile commute at 75 mph requires ~ 100 Ah @120V To store 100 Ah at 120V requires ~660 pounds of lead-acid batteries (actual commercial product) Based on product literature: To store 100 Ah at 120V requires ~100 pounds of Lithium Ion batteries (18650 cells actual commercial product) Based on open literature: Lead-acid chemical reaction: 2PbSO4 +2H2O  PbO2 + 2 H2SO4 with 2 e- exchanged per reaction. Lithium Ion reaction (one of several different chemistries): LiCoO2  Li(1-n)CoO2 + n(Li) + n (e-) / n(Li) + n(e-) + C  n(Li).C with n~.5 in current technology.</p> <p>CALCULATED: 100 aH = 3600 coulombs = 3600 X 6.241x10^18 electrons = 3.74 moles of electrons</p> <p>Lead – Acid battery: Molar weight of elements in the chemical reaction = 611.4g per 2 moles of electrons X3.74 / 2 electrons per reaction = 1143.3 g of active material required ~ 2.5 pounds</p> <p>Lithium Cobalt Oxide battery: Molar weight of elements in the chemical reaction = 109.8g /.5 or 219.6g per mole of electrons X3.74 electrons per reaction = 821 g of active material required ~ .75 pounds</p> <p>So, it appears that we are no where close to 100% utilization of the active materials in either battery technology. With Lead-Acid technology we are carrying around 660 pounds of stuff so that we can utilize about 2 ½ pounds of active material. This corresponds to a utilization factor of ~ 3.8%, or a theoretical margin for improvement of 264x. With Lithium technology we are carrying around 100 pounds of stuff so that we can utilize 0.75 pounds of active material. Utilization factor 7.5%, or margin for improvement of 113x.</p> <p>Of course there are other factors like weight of charging equipment, volume comparisons between the two technologies, etc. My point here is that just based on utilization of active material, we have a long way to go before we approach theoretical maximums of energy storage with any battery technology currently in use. One website (cambridge university / doitpoms.ac.uk) mentions theoretical storage capacity of 3860 mA-Hr/g for lithium technology, and later in the same article they mention 460 W-hr / kg as a theoretical maximum for a different Lithium technology, mentioning that we are approaching 160 W-hr/kg today with 220 W-hr/kg achievable in 5 years, so others apparently also feel that battery technology has not reached the end of its development path just yet. </p>


  • <p>Thanks for your comments Keef. As you and other readers have mentioned, batteries have been a very popular area for scams through the years. It seems that for years if not decades, we've been hearing about new battery technologies that will change the world, but none seem to pan out. </p>


  • <p>Thanks for your comments Randy, and for the update on different technologies for vehicle and power. I have no issue with using batteries in hybrids, I think that's a great idea. My issue is with all electric vehicles, which I think will never be practical.</p>


  • <p>There is some politics in the column Mike, but I think it's more about looking at the intersection of economics and engineering, an area where politicians can be expected to do more harm than good. My contention is that batteries have been pushed to their limits, based on observation of advances, or lack thereof, in this century. </p>


  • <p>Thanks for your comments Kim, and my column wasn't met to be a deep dive into battery science, but instead an opinion based on observations on battery technology developments. I think batteries have their place in hybrids, but not as the only power source for a vehicle. Electric cars have been around for over 50 years, and are still not widely used due to a lack of consumer demand. Contrast that with hybrids, which are relatively new yet widely accepted. Same for natural gas vehicles, where use is widespread in commercial and industrial cars and trucks. So far at least, the market has spoken, and it has said no to all electric vehicles, and I don't see that changing. </p> <p>Of course, prediction is difficult, particularly with respect to the future......</p>


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