Electric cars: are solid-state batteries the future?
The Big Electric Question #4
Electric cars will soon cost the same to own as petrol ones – dearer to buy, cheaper to run. But range will still be a bit less and charging a bit slower. So people go looking for game-changers in those fields.
Solid-state batteries get a lot of airtime. Small wonder. They replace the wet electrolyte in today’s lithium-ion batteries with a solid. Because they’re simpler they could be a lot cheaper, and lighter, and they won’t need liquid cooling. They should also be longer-lasting and fireproof. Possibly much faster-charging too – provided you can find an outlet much more powerful than the 350kW top-end jobs of today.
This isn’t crazy car-runs-on-tap-water nonsense. It’s been done in the lab. Dyson has staked its new car on the technology. Toyota is all over it. Caterpillar has recently invested in Fisker, citing Fisker’s solid-state technology as a reason. The eminently respectable Swiss Fraunhofer Institute has a major project going, with partners including Cambridge University.
But even if they get it right, the industry won’t adopt these new batteries all at once. Companies have only comparatively recently invested hugely in plants to make today’s cells and batteries. They won’t just shut those down – the financial imperative is to amortise them over decades to come. But apart from Tesla’s Gigafactory, those plants are mostly in Asia. Fraunhofer points out that if Europe leads with solid-state and starts making it here, that’s a strategic win for the continent.
We can be optimistic for a sustainable and affordable widespread conversion to EVs
Meanwhile, charge points are still too scarce and people are queuing for them. How about leap-frogging them altogether? Bury inductive charge-pads under the surface. Not just at car parks, or traffic lights, but in the road itself, so cars charge as they drive. It has actually been demonstrated by Renault with Qualcomm. The car handshakes with, then picks up energy from, one coil after the other in quick succession.
But it seems like a mad solution that’ll be overtaken by other developments. The project was planned when long-range batteries cost a fortune. Charging on the move seemed like a neat way to allow a small-battery EV to do roadtrips. Now we have better batteries and faster charging, with more to come if the solid-state scientists do their thing. Anyone for digging up the motorways to run coils underneath? Thought not. Oh and someone recently pointed out to me that coils get warm, so animals like to sleep on them. Road-kill apocalypse ahoy.
Thing is though, fuel tax helps pay for the NHS and education and the nation’s defence and all the rest. The exchequer can’t do without. Neither can it raise the tax across all electricity.
It won’t have to. Almost all EVs are connected. They know where they are, and what electricity they’ve taken on. They can report it too. So it’s possible to put automatic road tolls onto an EV, or tax its electricity at a higher rate than what goes into your nan’s heater. Still cheaper than petrol.