One of the hottest topics in the automotive industry is the electrification of vehicles now and in future. Almost every manufacturer is trying to work out how they introduce some form of electrification into their model ranges and how quickly they can launch.
Automotive manufacturers have to meet strict targets when it comes to vehicle emissions. This is one reason that this technology has to happen. Every day we hear of new vehicle electrification whether it be full-blown Battery Electric Vehicles (BEV), Plug-in Hybrid Electric Vehicles (PHEV) or even mild hybrid technology such as the new 48V systems in vehicles from Kia and Hyundai.
However, there is a danger that what is innovative and relevant today may become outdated very quickly due to the speed of change when it comes to technology evolution.
It is intriguing to read the results of research carried out by Professor Leroy Cronin and his team at Glasgow University. Their ‘hybrid-electric-hydrogen’ flow battery uses nanoscale battery molecules that can store energy and release it on demand as either electric power or hydrogen gas for fuel. The team say that it may be possible to use this technology in electric vehicles.
Once the stored energy is used, a draining process followed by a filling process allows the vehicle to be ready for use again. The drained fluid requires recharging prior to reuse. This means that it would be feasible to recharge an electric vehicle in minutes just like filling an internal combustion engine vehicle with fuel.
If this technology suddenly became mainstream, meaning fuel stations would be able to deliver liquid battery fluid through their existing infrastructure, it would propel electric vehicle interest greatly.
The Glasgow University team are not the only team trying to find new solutions for battery power. There are many researchers all over the world working on this type of battery. Such as the team at Harvard University who are also developing flow battery technology.
This type of technology could transform the industry enabling automotive manufacturers to develop electric vehicles without including massive, heavy and space consuming battery packs in their designs. This would lead to future electric vehicles that are much lighter and therefore much more efficient; and at the same time making EVs much cheaper.
It would also remove one of the biggest issues currently holding back EV sales: the complication of finding somewhere to charge the battery as well as having to wait the time it takes to replenish the charge in the battery.
It is still too early to know all the details such as how and where the fluid gets charged. How long and complicated is the process? How long does the fluid hold the charge? How much fluid delivers the much sought after longer EV ranges?
One of the main concerns for many manufacturers is exactly how quickly things are moving, how will future battery technology change and what effect will it have on the vehicles that they are developing today using current battery technology.
Before we factor in autonomy, electric vehicles of the future will be different to those of today and that is the biggest issue for manufacturers today. How much do they invest in current technology, how quickly will it change, and what effect will the changes make on the future values of their vehicles?
Examples of how manufacturers are changing their development cycles includes the venture BMW has with Sila Nano. Sila Nano are working on a novel anode material promising significant performance boosts for lithium-ion batteries. BMW believe this technology will deliver 10-15% increases in energy storage capacity in lithium-ion batteries. They hope this technology will find use in their vehicles improving EV range.
Although there is much research into battery technology, it looks likely that for the next 5 years lithium-ion remains dominant for EVs. The BMW Sila venture shows improvements to this technology are likely over time as well as the development of new battery technology such as the flow battery.
Improvements in motor efficiencies and vehicle aerodynamics coupled to weight reductions could be the turning point for EVs that will not just rely on ever-larger batteries. Employing these efficiencies could improve energy usage; from for example 3.5 miles per kW to 4.2 miles per kW with a 50kW battery on board would extend the EV range from 175 miles to 210 miles.
This could mean EVs evolve rather more quickly than their internal combustion engine counterparts meaning early models could age quite quickly. However, this does not mean current EVs will not be of any use. They still work perfectly for lighter users who can easily charge at home. As awareness increases, more people will realise that they can live with an EV comfortably making EVs the ideal choice as a second car.
The fact that they will not be the most innovative or have the best range will ultimately mean their residual values will decline more than EVs with better ranges. However, this will likely be a gradual reduction as EV ranges increase overtime.
Recycling lithium-ion batteries
The other issue to manage is what happens to lithium-ion batteries that no longer have the capacity to be practical to power an EV. There are two potential routes to follow.
- Reuse the battery to store surplus naturally produced electricity from solar panels or wind farms for use when the energy is not being produced
- Recycle the batteries using ultra-high temperatures to extract the base metals including cobalt, nickel and lithium.
With WLTP in place, the regular company cars enjoyed for many years have become extremely expensive when considering Benefit in Kind (BIK) taxation. The increases in BIK will drive more company cars users into PHEVs and EVs as users search for sensible financial solutions. This migration will lead to rapid increases in the uptake of new vehicles. Within a short cycle, this increase will play out in the used market with increases in the number of used PHEVs and EVs improving visibility, awareness and acceptance.
As with many new technologies, industry stakeholders need to work together to educate users, dealers and the rest of the automotive industry to the possibility of living with EVs on a daily basis. This education will open minds to the possibility of replacing internal combustion engines with silent EVs.