From how much they cost and weigh to the amount of power they store and how long they take to charge, electric vehicle (EV) batteries have a significant impact on EVs themselves, the EV industry as a whole, and ultimately EV buyers. That’s why billions of investment dollars are flowing into the EV supply chain, including EV battery manufacturing.
All are counting on battery innovations to improve EV performance, drive down costs, and eliminate dependence on scarce materials. The ideal battery will be made of low-cost, plentiful materials that are lightweight and flexible enough to allow vehicle design innovations. It will charge in minutes, provide longer driving distance to overcome range anxiety, last indefinitely, be safe to operate — and accelerate widespread EV adoption.
Is the vision possible? Researchers haven’t yet come up with a battery that does everything we want, but they’re making progress. Some new approaches are coming onto the market in the near term, others this decade, and even more are in the very early stages of development.
Opportunities for innovation: what’s inside an EV battery
Electrochemical batteries of any kind have three essential components: the cathode (positive electrode), the anode (negative electrode), and an electrolyte that acts as a catalyst. Ions (electrons) flow between the electrodes, passing through the electrolyte, to create an electric current. All three components offer opportunities for improvement.
EVs today are predominantly powered by lithium-ion batteries, which have cathodes made up of lithium plus other metals, most commonly in Europe and the US a blend of nickel, manganese, and cobalt (NMC) or nickel, manganese, cobalt, and aluminum (NMCA). Anodes are most commonly made of graphite. Drawbacks of these batteries — the reason people are looking for new chemistries — are cost and scarcity of the primary minerals, limitations to energy density, safety issues, and temperature sensitivity.
Up next: LFPs and solid-state batteries
Already powering most of the EVs made in China, lithium iron phosphate batteries, or LFPs, are making their way onto US, European, and other markets in select models from Tesla, Toyota, Ford, and Hyundai. The pluses are the lower cost and easier availability of iron and phosphate, making LFPs an increasingly attractive choice to reduce the cost of EVs.
Solid-state batteries are much talked about as the next-generation battery that will revolutionize EVs with longer lifespan, increased range, lighter weight, and significantly faster charging times. Major automotive manufacturers and independent battery manufacturers are committed to bring solid-state batteries to market, but no one has yet figured out how to produce them at scale. Toyota is aiming to have a solid-state battery ready for commercial use by 2027-2028 that will have a 1,000 km cruising range and a fast charge time of 10 minutes.
Innovations in the works for this decade
The race is on to see which new battery technologies can move from the lab to commercial production first, and a number of new approaches are attracting investment dollars and automotive partnerships. Some offer incremental improvements over current lithium-ion batteries, and others are taking an entirely new approach.
- Companies pursuing lithium-ion improvements include Sila Nanotechnologies, who is replacing the graphite anode with silicon to reduce weight and increase energy density, while OneD is working on infusing graphite anodes with silicon nanowires to increase performance. Another approach under development is adding lithium salt to the electrolyte of lithium-ion batteries to reduce flammability.
- Sodium-ion battery technology, replacing expensive lithium with cheap and widely available sodium, is under development, with Pacific Northwest National Lab recently announcing a breakthrough in the technology.
- Mercedes Benz and IBM Research partnered to develop a battery that uses materials extracted from seawater
- Carbon nanotube electrodes can increase battery density by 300% according to developer Nawa Technologies and reduce charging time to five minutes
Lithium-air solid-state batteries developed by the Argonne National Laboratory are also very promising, so named because lithium is combined with oxygen taken from air
Beyond performance: better batteries are better for the planet
While the commercial goal of battery improvements is to reduce the cost of EVs while delivering faster charging and relieving range anxiety, the environmental and climate benefits are also worth the effort and investments. By reducing the use of hard-to-mine and scarce minerals while accelerating the adoption of EVs, battery technology delivers significant promises for reducing carbon emissions and helping to recharge the planet.