In today’s Exponential Investor:

  • Battery dead
  • Why lithium?
  • Why not iron?

Last weekend I jumped in the car to make a dash to the shops.

As soon as I went to turn the engine over, I knew that I was in trouble.

The electrics in the car lit up like a Christmas tree, but nothing else much happened.

It was pretty clear I was dealing with a flat battery. The only thing was that the car hadn’t had any lights left on or anything like that. All the systems are automatic, so the source of the problem was just simply a battery that had run the course of its life.

That is not really that big a deal. I had to jump start the engine, switch off the stop/start function (so as to not conk out at traffic lights) and get down to Halfords for a new battery.

Within a few minutes, a new battery had been installed and the car had been recalibrated (so that the stop/start function would work). The cost was about £170 and less than 30 minutes of my time.

In the grand scheme of things, it was a simple, easy and straightforward process.

But it got me thinking…

You see, all batteries eventually need replacing. All of them.

So what happens with the increasing number of electric vehicles (EVs) on the road when it comes time to replace their batteries? And I’m not talking about a heaving lump next to the engine here. I’m talking about an entire floor and chassis filled with lithium-ion batteries.

There’s no way you’ll be popping down to Halfords to get the entire chassis of your car replaced. Simply put, at some point in the future, a lot of EVs are going to become giant paperweights as their batteries become inefficient and need replacing and the cost to replace the battery outweighs the value of the car itself.

It leaves the future EV world in a predicament. Or… does it?

Our lithium crutch

Lithium-ion batteries have become the most popular choice for EVs, and for good reason. These high-energy-density batteries have a number of advantages over other types of batteries, making them well suited for use in EVs.

The history of lithium-ion batteries dates back to the 1970s, when researchers at Exxon Corporation first developed the technology. However, it wasn’t until the 1990s that lithium-ion batteries began to be used in consumer electronics, such as laptops and mobile phones.

One of the reasons why lithium-ion batteries began to find their way into electronics is their high energy density. This means that they can store a lot of energy in a small space. Therefore, their application in consumer electronics was a no-brainer. And then, given that space is typically at a premium in a car, they also became the popular battery of choice.

In addition, lithium-ion batteries have a relatively low self-discharge rate, meaning they can hold their charge for long periods of time. This is important for EVs, which need to be able to hold their charge for longer trips.

I should note that lithium-ion batteries do have a long lifespan. While they do degrade over time, they are typically able to hold a significant portion of their original capacity even after several years of use. This makes them a cost-effective choice for EVs for now, as they don’t need to be replaced as frequently as other types of batteries.

But it’s that period after several years of use where I think the EV industry will be forced into change. And therein lies the opportunity.

What next?

As the demand for EVs continues to grow, researchers and automakers are exploring a variety of alternative battery technologies that could potentially offer improvements over traditional lithium-ion batteries.

Solid-state batteries are a newer type of battery technology that uses solid electrodes and electrolytes rather than the liquid ones used in lithium-ion batteries. This can potentially result in higher energy density, longer lifespan and improved safety.

However, solid-state batteries are still in the early stages of development and sceptics argue that they may never become a commercial reality.

Metal-air batteries are a type of “breathing” battery that uses a metal as the anode and oxygen from the air as the cathode.

This allows them to have very high energy density, making them a potentially attractive option for use in EVs. However, metal-air batteries also have some challenges to overcome, including the need to find ways to prevent the metal from degrading over time and to improve their rechargeability.

Hydrogen fuel cells are a type of battery that generates electricity through a chemical reaction between hydrogen and oxygen. They have the advantage of being able to generate electricity on demand, making them a potentially attractive option for use in EVs. This is something that BMW has been actively pursuing. However, fuel cells also have some challenges to overcome, including the need to find ways to improve their efficiency and to reduce their cost.

Supercapacitors are a type of battery that can store and release large amounts of energy very quickly. They are often used in conjunction with traditional batteries in EVs to help improve performance and extend the range. However, supercapacitors currently have a relatively low energy density compared to other types of batteries, which limits their potential use in EVs.

While it is likely that lithium-ion batteries will continue to be the dominant technology in the near term, it is possible that one or more of these new technologies could eventually emerge as a viable alternative in the future.

How about batteries from air?

I think one of the big opportunities in battery tech might be the iron-air battery. Iron-air batteries are a type of “breathing” battery mentioned above that uses iron as the anode and oxygen from the air as the cathode.

Like metal-air batteries, they have the potential to have a very high energy density due to the fact that they use oxygen from the air as one of their reactants.

One advantage of iron-air batteries is that iron is relatively inexpensive and abundant, which could potentially make them less expensive to produce than other types of metal-air batteries. In addition, iron-air batteries have the potential for a longer lifespan than lithium-ion batteries due to the fact that the iron in the anode does not degrade as quickly.

However, iron-air batteries also have some challenges to overcome. For example, they tend to produce hydrogen gas as a by-product of the chemical reaction, which can be dangerous if not properly managed. In addition, iron-air batteries can be prone to self-discharge, which means that they can lose their charge over time even when not in use.

In short, iron-air batteries may be a promising alternative to traditional lithium-ion batteries for use in EVs. They may just be one area of development to keep an eye on in 2023.

Until next time…

Sam Volkering
Editor, Exponential Investor