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Drive to a cleaner future gets a push

Shalini Verma
Filed on September 25, 2020

(Alamy)

Battery Day has significance because we have a clear timeframe for a global shift to electric vehicles

Years ago, when my physics teacher was droning on about the battery, I was wondering what the fuss was all about. It was just chemical energy converting to electrical energy. 

You never really think about the battery until it dies. Now our digital life revolves around charging phones, laptops, and watches. Inside our digital gadgets, there is a smug little battery that is sure that it cannot be taken for granted. Battery life plays a huge role in our buying decision. 

Notably, batteries are the heartbeat of the electric vehicle market as the demand for zero-emission vehicles rise. Not surprisingly, Tesla CEO Elon Musk made an occasion out of his announcement yesterday in what he called the Battery Day. 

Despite the pandemic, Tesla investors did attend the event, except that the venue was a drive-in set up. It was fitting that a car company would host a socially distanced event in a parking lot. The neatly parked cars raucously honked and more than made up for the customary clapping and cheering.

The market expected Elon to show off a shiny new battery. Admittedly, Elon raised the expectation by promising that the revelations would be 'insane'. But he was referring to the new design and not the timeline. We will have to wait for at least three years before the new batteries power Tesla vehicles. 

The lithium-ion battery is the most expensive part of an electric car. To make Tesla truly mass-market, Musk needs an affordable battery that is below the cost of fuel. Experts believe that the price needs to be in the vicinity of $100 per kilowatt hour. Elon has promised to slash the current cost of around $150 per kilowatt hour by half. So how is Tesla going to achieve this halving of the battery cost? For one, Tesla has gone the Apple way by bringing the manufacturing in-house. This means a vertical integration for the electric vehicles using the new batteries. 

The energy density and the cycle life of the battery needs to be improved down to the particle. Tesla intends to improve the silicon treatment in the anode. It will replace cobalt in cathodes with nickel that is more abundantly distributed around the world, hence cheap and has high energy density. Improved cathode and anode materials will cost less and increase battery range by 20 per cent. More importantly, the tab that connects the battery to the vehicle causes energy loss and hogs up capacity. So 'tabless batteries' shorten the distance for the current to travel and provide room for a larger cell. 

With this transformation, Elon expects to bring the price of the Tesla car down to $25,000. This could make Tesla a household name. However, Tesla's competitors have a three-year window to catch up. On the other hand, competitors like General Motors will focus on hydrogen fuel cell, as it plans to scale this clean energy technology for zero-emission vehicles. It is also using a near wireless management system for its electric vehicle batteries. This would mean an easier integration of batteries in more types of vehicles. 

In many countries where the fuel price is skyrocketing, the roads will look a lot different with many more electric vehicles. Uber has announced that all the cars on its platform will have to be electric by 2040. Urban planners and road transportation authorities across the world should plan for green parking and charging stations. Currently, we see a couple of charging stations, but in five years' time, we can expect to see large swathes of green in the parking lots. 

Anyone who sets out to change status quo knows that the first step is the hardest one. Elon admits that a new machine to manufacture the new machine is the hardest part. The team knows the direction it must take to scale up production of the new batteries. 

Battery Day has significance because we have a clear timeframe for a global shift to electric vehicles. It gives us a sneak peek into the future that is around the curb. Cities that are choking from poor air quality can hope to breathe easy. That is something to cheer about.

Shalini Verma is CEO of PIVOT technologies

 


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