Imagining the Future of Electric Vehicles and the Batteries That Will Drive Them

In 1987, Nokia launched its first handheld mobile phone, the Mobira Cityman. The Cityman weighed in at about 2 pounds, packed a single hour of battery life, and cost thousands of dollars. While utterly revolutionary at the time, our kids today would not even recognize this ancient behemoth.

One of the things that allowed us to move from the brick-like cell phones of the '80s to the pocket-sized smart phones of today was the lithium ion battery. The lithium ion battery was first commercialized by Sony in 1991, and has since proven to be a revolutionary advance against a historical backdrop of snail's pace development in batteries. To get a sense for just how revolutionary lithium ion has been, consider that the nickel-cadmium ("NiCad") battery which powered the Cityman was barely half the size and weight of the first rechargeable battery technologies ever commercialized in the 1800s. In contrast, a mere 20 years of lithium ion development has driven nearly a 5-fold improvement, and at a significantly lower cost point.

Lithium ion technology was pivotal in the transformation to small, lightweight, and low-cost portable electronics. Now, that same battery technology is aimed at a new transformation: bringing electric vehicles (EV's) to the masses. This new transformation has already begun, with the first mass-produced EV's coming off production lines right now. But while these cars are comfortable, reliable, elegant, and a joy to drive, they are not yet ready for the masses.

It takes a lot more energy to drive your car than your iPhone. So even with the latest lithium ion batteries, equipping a vehicle with 100 miles of electric driving range requires a battery pack that costs upwards of $15,000, weighs about 500 pounds, and takes up a lot of precious space. As a result, the electric range of most new EV's is low, considering that most of us are used to being able to drive several hundred miles on a full tank of gas.

Cost and driving range in today's EV's pose two significant drawbacks to the average consumer. But not all vehicles are purchased by the average consumer. While an expensive battery adds sticker shock to a vehicle's price tag, it turns out that the savings gained by filling up your tank with cheap electricity rather than gas can make back the difference over the life of the vehicle. Factor in the fact that electric drive trains have nearly maintenance-free operation, and the total savings can make the EV a cheaper option even today. This basic arithmetic has driven corporations and municipalities across the world to consider EV's for their vehicle fleets, where amortized lifetime costs are essential and well-defined routes allow batteries to be sized for minimal cost. Recent electric fleet announcements by the likes of FedEx and General Electric indicate that fleets will be an important early market for EV's. Meanwhile, there seems to be no immediate shortage of individuals lining up to buy the first EV's from the likes of GM, Nissan, and Tesla Motors. Motivated by this strong early customer base, at least 20 manufacturers have announced plans to bring EV's to market in the next few years.

Still, for the average Joe, today's EV's are in many ways reminiscent of the old Nokia Cityman: way too expensive and not nearly convenient enough to make sense. To speed adoption and for electric vehicles to become ubiquitous, batteries will have to improve tremendously.

Driven by early market growth, the lithium ion industry is rapidly working to achieve economies of scale, reduce costs, and increase energy capacity. All of this must be done while still ensuring that EV batteries are safe, reliable, and have long enough life to avoid prohibitive replacement costs. The challenge cannot be understated, but the reality is that battery technology is advancing faster than ever before and governments around the world have recognized the need and associated opportunity. For instance, more than a billion dollars invested by the Department of Energy under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act is driving these advances here at home and helping bring a thriving new battery manufacturing industry back to the United States, where lithium ion technology was originally invented.

There is no doubt that the industry's advances will accelerate and widen adoption of electric vehicles, but there are also giant breakthroughs that could open the floodgates further. Our agency, the Advanced Research Projects Agency - Energy (ARPA-E), exists within the Department of Energy specifically to fund game-changing technologies that can eliminate US dependence on foreign oil and create jobs and a clean, secure, and efficient energy infrastructure that will benefit our country as well as the rest of the world. Through a program called "BEEST," we are funding research efforts that could allow more than a doubling in EV range without adding any space or cost to the vehicle. Some of these projects aim to integrate novel materials into current lithium ion batteries. Others are looking past lithium ion and focus on innovative ultra-high energy concepts like magnesium-ion and metal air batteries that each have the potential to be the next revolutionary battery platform.

Battery breakthroughs are critical, but it is important to keep in mind that a widespread and robust transportation infrastructure based primarily on EV's will require advances not only in batteries, but in many other areas such as power electronics, next-gen vehicle designs, consumer behavior, new business models, and perhaps most of all, a smarter, cleaner, and more secure electricity grid. ARPA-E is supporting crucial research in several of these areas, and a variety of innovative new concepts, like Better Place's EV battery leasing model, are rapidly coming onto the scene in the United States and around the globe.

Looking back at the Cityman and considering the cell phones of today, one can't help but wonder what the EV's of 2020 will look like, and whether they will be powered by a completely new battery technology. We can't say for sure, but we are seeing some incredibly exciting developments in the works.

Hard to imagine a game-changer in EV batteries? Just keep in mind that after its release in 1991, Li-ion technology quickly took off to ultimately capture the entire market for portable electronics. And just a few years earlier, in the mid-1980s, nobody saw it coming.