A Tesla charging up. The carmaker’s founder, Elon Musk, tweeted this week: ‘Battery cell production is the fundamental rate-limiter slowing down a sustainable energy future. Very important problem’ © David Paul Morris/Bloomberg

Science has hastened to the rescue in the coronavirus pandemic at a remarkable pace, with vaccinations now rolling out in many countries. But another scientific challenge that is vital to the world’s health is taking a frustratingly long time: making better batteries for electric vehicles.

“Battery cell production is the fundamental rate-limiter slowing down a sustainable energy future. Very important problem,” tweeted Elon Musk, Tesla’s founder and a man with his foot pressed to the floor, this week. If only money and enthusiasm were enough to solve it.

Carmakers are eager: Volkswagen sold more electric vehicles in western Europe last year than Tesla, despite VW’s struggles with the technology in recent years. Governments are pushing the transition: Carlos Tavares, chief executive of Stellantis, the company formed by a merger of Fiat Chrysler and PSA, complained of “narrow-minded regulations” favouring electric cars.

Investors are excited: Tesla’s market capitalisation of around $805bn this week was higher than most of its rivals put together. The valuation of QuantumScape jumped to almost $50bn last month (before falling again) after the company unveiled a prototype solid-state cell that can be charged to 80 per cent in 15 minutes. 

But scientists still labour over the decades-long challenge of developing a practical alternative to petrol. Nature created an efficient form of power over millions of years with fossil fuels — energy-dense and portable. Were it not for the environmental damage they cause, they would be hard to beat.

Beaten they must be, and there is little time left to replace internal combustion engines: the UK wants sales phased out by 2030. The lithium-ion batteries packed into electric cars are a huge advance on the lead acid batteries in milk floats, but far from ideal.

The materials science behind batteries is very different from the mRNA technology in the BioNTech/Pfizer vaccine. Yet the traditional timescales of battery and drug development are similar: a decade or more from the discovery of a new technology through development to approval and manufacture.

There are exciting innovations in batteries, from QuantumScape’s ceramic layer to the “extreme fast charging” of lithium-ion cells offered by StoreDot, an Israeli start-up. But Mr Musk is right to focus on production — there is still a leap needed to make millions of batteries that are ready to put into vehicles.

“What Tesla does is quite different to laboratories — we make grammes while they produce tonnes,” says Billy Wu, a senior lecturer at Imperial College, London, “It is relatively easy to produce prototypes, but difficult to bring them to market.” Replacing liquid electrolytes in batteries with ceramics improves performance but can make them harder to manufacture.

Batteries need to advance because fossil fuels are remarkably well suited to powering cars, partly thanks to the infrastructure built since the launch of the Ford Model T in 1908. We take it for granted that we can fill a car with petrol in a few minutes and drive for hundreds of kilometres on a single tank.

The energy density of petrol — the amount of energy stored in each kilogramme — is very high compared with the most advanced lithium-ion batteries. Even when adjusted for the inefficiency of internal combustion engines, petrol produces more than 10 times the watt-hours per kilogramme.

The contest is unequal. Energy is released from fossil fuels by burning them, and emitting harmful carbon dioxide, but batteries cannot be allowed to catch fire. Petrol is only used once, batteries are recharged many times. But the driver still wants an electric vehicle to match the performance of a petrol one.

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So, more energy has to be packed into each battery; they need to be cheaper; they need to recharge faster without damage; their lifetimes need to be extended; they need to work at a wider range of temperatures. Beyond all this, they must be charged with clean electricity rather than coal-fired power, and become easier to recycle.

That is a huge array of challenges and plenty of capital is needed — more than $300bn has been committed to building electric vehicles, according to one estimate, and salaries are high for anyone who can help in the effort. But meeting the targets for revolutionising transport requires more than cash.

This is where vaccines are instructive. The idea that drug discovery and development could be compressed into less than a year appeared far-fetched last January. But scientists leapt into action, drugs companies formed partnerships, regulators worked faster. A global public-private effort triumphed.

There are lessons in that acceleration. Changing not only a power source but an entire transport infrastructure is even harder, but there is no time to spare.


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Letter in response to this article:

Targets will be missed in phaseout of fossil fuel cars / From Ian MacKillop, Ilminster, Somerset, UK

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