By Martin Murray
With the aim of curbing the rising air pollution and addressing climate change, many countries have announced phased reduction of sales of new cars with internal combustion engines (ICE), over next 25-30 years. Electric vehicles (EVs) have the potential to fill in the void left by diesel and petrol-powered vehicles. Tremendous advances in battery technology and manufacturing have gradually helped to reduce the costs of EVs over the past decade. In addition to vehicles, batteries have the potential even on the stationary side to change the energy landscape. To ensure wider adoption of EVs, more development is required particularly in the electrode materials in the battery. As per the International Energy Agency (IEA), electric car deployment has been growing rapidly over the past 10 years, with the global stock of electric passenger cars passing 5 million in 2018, an increase of 63% from the previous year. But while this growth rate is impressive, electric cars account for a mere 0.7% of over a billion passenger vehicles on the road today. The penetration of EVs in the passenger segment is less than 0.5%. There are many potential buyers in the market, but they are waiting for affordable EVs with greater range and faster charging time, and price at par with an ICE vehicle—all features tied to the battery. The ultimate goal by many OEMs is to increase the range to 350-400 km, decrease the charging time to less than 20 minutes, and reduce the cost of EV batteries to less than $100 per kWh.
As we speak, advances in batteries have improved performance, while optimisation of manufacturing and an increase in production capacity have allowed battery prices to drop. The ultimate goal is mass adoption of electric cars. A battery pack that costs $100/kWh or less will enable EVs to have cost advantage of ICE-powered vehicles, and with the help of government subsidies EVs can get on the faster lane.
Development of better battery materials will certainly help us achieve this goal. To do so, various characteristics must be optimised simultaneously including energy density, to boost the vehicle range; power, for accelerating and charging properties; the cost of raw materials and most importantly safety. Most of these characteristics depend on the cathode material. Better development of the cathode material at an affordable cost can really improve the performance of a battery.
As the lithium-ion battery charges and discharges, some of the lithium ions flow back and forth between the two electrodes. Many consumer goods even today use lithium cobalt oxide that was first intercalation cathode debuted in 1991. But lithium cobalt oxide has limited or inadequate electrochemical properties for EV applications. Cobalt is also an expensive component; to reduce the cost of the cell, the price of cobalt has to come down.
The other alternative is incorporating nickel. Due to the lower energy density in nickel, it allows more lithium ions to the cathode without compromising the structure of the material. Nickel is significantly cheaper than cobalt and it is proven that nickel manganese cobalt (NMC alloy) has increased the efficiency of EVs.
In-house development of EV technology in India is growing at a faster pace. Be it battery chemistry, design, simulation or the software side, India has the right set of skilful engineers that will allow India to lead EV R&D at a global stage. A unique market such as India requires customised mobility solutions and the next phase of the EV wave will see India not just becoming the biggest consumer but also a global hub for research, development and manufacturing of EVs for the world.
The author is chief technology officer for Mahindra Electric Mobility Ltd; he heads engineering and IT for vehicles, and propulsion systems and components
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