While that shows tremendous growth in electric vehicles, you don’t have to be a statistician to notice that this is still a fairly small percentage. EVs are becoming more affordable (although they may not be as affordable as cars with internal combustion engines until the 2020s). Plus, there are great government incentives that make it easy – and at least comparable in price to standard auto sales – for people to switch to EVs. So what’s holding the market back? In a word; batteries.
Although batteries aren’t the most glamorous part of an electric vehicle, they are perhaps the most important. They’re also the biggest stumbling block today to growing the EV market, thanks to the directly linked range anxiety they can produce. Drivers with electric cars generally have to plug in overnight to maintain their 100-plus-mile range. Considering that most people drive just about 30 miles a day, that’s a full eight-hour charge at home overnight every week, as opposed to taking five minutes to refuel roughly every 10 days. If you notice your battery is low at work or while on a road trip, not refuelling for so many critical hours can be a scary proposition. And if you don’t have a charging socket, be it a three-pin plug or dedicated unit, with an accompanying parking space for lengthy charging at home, life with an EV can be pretty inconvenient. While the numbers are getting better, that’s sadly still the kind of maths that keeps people tethered to their petrol- powered cars.
But a big change is on the horizon: A new generation of batteries that can get a significant charge in just five minutes – the same amount of time it takes for a petrol refill. Five minutes is what it takes to run into a shop for a toilet break and a coffee refill.
What put us on the verge of this ultrafast-charge revolution? Silicon-dominant lithium ion (Li-ion) batteries. The next generation of EVs that use these new batteries could hit the market as soon as three years from now. These batteries use silicon in place of graphite in the battery anodes and tests indicate they’re a huge step forward from the traditional Li-ion batteries currently on the market. They are lighter and safer and can operate even in the coldest temperatures.
Most significantly, though, silicon soaks up approximately 5-10 times more energy than graphite – and does so much faster too. With a silicon-dominant Li- ion battery, in just 15 minutes you’ll get a full charge. In five minutes, you’ll get a significant charge that should last you days. In fact, in 60 seconds, you can charge a large battery enough to go up to 50 miles.
That’s a game changer
Here are five ways that EVs stocked with next- generation ultrafast-charging batteries will soon change everything
Right now, the fastest an EV can gather a significant charge is 45 minutes. That’s thanks to the Tesla Supercharger, which can get a Model S with an 85kWh battery to 80% charge in that time. That’s not terrible if you find a Supercharger and don’t mind waiting if there happens to be a queue. But when you think about it, 45 minutes is still a lot longer than most of us want to spend waiting for the car to charge. Just about every long-distance driver is happy to stop every few hours for a five-minute break, though. Ultrafast-charging silicon- dominant EV batteries are poised to make this the new norm in EV charging.
- Range anxiety, even if overblown,
is a problem with EVs. Even when an EV panel or battery “fuel” gauge says it has 99 miles to go, many people have trouble trusting any number with double digits because variables like hills or drops in temperature can quickly absorb those extra miles. But next-generation ultrafast-charging batteries can extend the range in both these cases. For one thing, silicon-dominant batteries have higher energy density, which provides roughly 20% more battery capacity and range for the same battery size. Also, silicon-dominant batteries are less affected by cold climates when compared to Li-ion. And, when an electric or hybrid vehicle goes downhill or triggers regenerative braking, an ultrafast-charging battery can absorb the energy far more quickly at high currents – ultimately giving back an estimated 10 to 15% of expended energy.
- More affordable EVs: A smaller battery that can be ultrafast-charged en route would be less expensive both in EV purchase price and trip value. Most of the cost of an electric vehicle is in the battery. The bigger the battery, the higher the price. If you could create a smaller and lighter battery pack that charges ultrafast and has a higher energy density, there would be no need for a huge battery. It’s a shift in mindset – a smaller battery pack may need to be recharged more often, but only in short ultrafast charges rather than overnight.
EVs installed with an ultrafast-charging battery would also be easier on the wallet when it comes to “fueling.” Right now we are accustomed to paying about £50 to fill up a car for around 400 miles range. For a far less expensive charge, you can go the same range with a next-generation EV. However, this does of course depend on the electricity at the pump being reasonably priced.
- A dramatic change in EV charging infrastructure:
With a nearly full charge in five minutes that gives you a significant amount of range, ultrafast-charging EVs will be able to race through charging hubs just like they were typical fuel stations. Ultrafast charging is expected to increase the number of EVs served in a station by five to eight times, so we might actually see a reduction in the number of dedicated public charging stations and a rise in quick-charge spots. Any car park can become a charging station, because it’s a lot easier to distribute electricity than petrol or diesel and the electric grids are already in place. Right now, though, commercial building owners appear reluctant to add too many charging stations at parking spots near their properties, because cars have to stay in them for such a long time to recharge. Whereas, if cars could charge up in just a few minutes, workplaces and public destinations might be more willing to set up stations, not only for their employees and consumers but also for delivery vehicles, car-share services and any other commercial vehicle that needs a quick boost.
Consequently, more ultrafast chargers mean more people can charge their cars in more places, which should stimulate the market for electric vehicles. It could also further open the market to those without parking spaces, such as flat owners, who would simply cope in the same manner that they do with a petrol or diesel vehicle. Short charging times, longer range, more affordable EVs and more prevalent and efficient charging stations will lead to more EV sales.
- EV fleets might spike in popularity: All this might lead to significant investments in fleets of autonomous EVs, which are currently hindered by their need to charge for hours. At present, EV fleets have to be sizable because so many vehicles – with their large batteries – have to sit at chargers for significant periods of time. If fleets had EVs with ultrafast-charging next-generation batteries and chargers, these vehicles would need less time plugged in. A greater number of EVs could be rotated through the chargers on a quicker cycle, allowing for fewer fleet vehicles necessary to surpass the older generations’ productivity.
Overall cost for a smaller yet more industrious fleet of
EVs might suddenly become more appealing.
Ultrafast-charging EVs would greatly reduce range anxiety for long-distance trips and long commutes – and make them attractive to just about everybody. In other words, more people will buy the next generation of EVs if they know they can accomplish everything listed above.
“It seems reasonable that mass adoption will only take place when these vehicles are considered to be the first choice in a household,” says Edward Tuttle, managing principal at Analysis Group, a private economics consultancy.
The mix of next-generation ultrafast-charging EV batteries and more ultrafast-charging options, combined with longer-range and more affordable EVs, has enormous potential. We could finally be on the brink of the kind of EV revolution that was once the stuff of science fiction. From now on, carmakers will be thinking in terms of more efficient batteries instead of bigger batteries. And that’s going to make the difference.