Alternatives to Lithium-Ion battery technology

The conclusions of 300 scientists at this conference in June confirm that now is not the time for more incremental progress. We need to aim much higher and put our efforts into transformative ideas that are axiomatically high-risk but high-payoff should they succeed. Business as usual will not enable widespread adoption of affordable electric vehicles. Lithium-ion technology is now 20 years old and still far too expensive for the price point of the EV market. Let the manufacturers optimize the manufacturing process to try to drop the price of this technology, but let’s not spend our precious research dollars on something we can buy off the shelf. It’s time for bold action.

Hosted by Lawrence Berkeley National Lab, the conference, titled “Beyond Lithium Ion V: Symposium on Scalable Energy Storage,” took place in Berkeley from June 5 to June 7. An estimated 300 scientists and engineers attended the symposium.

Researchers agreed that the lithium-ion chemistry used in today’s generation of batteries for electric cars–and laptops and cell phones–is reaching maturity, and that only incremental improvements can be expected in energy density, which needs to be higher, and cost, which needs to be lower, for widespread use in battery-electric vehicles (BEV)–cars which are powered only by electricity from the electric grid and stored onboard. Lithium-ion batteries are adequate for hybrid electric vehicles (HEV) like the Prius, and marginally adequate for plug-in-hybrid vehicles (PHEV) like the Chevy Volt. However, the range of a fully electric vehicle such as the Nissan LEAF–powered only by electricity stored on board and without a gasoline “range extender”–is too low for many drivers, who may use a BEV as a second car for urban trips while maintaining a gasoline-powered or hybrid car for trips exceeding the electric range of a BEV.