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By Dhruv Warrior – Research Analyst, Council on Energy, Environment and Water (CEEW)
The deployment of electric vehicles (EVs) will define the mobility revolution of the 21st century. The recent emergence of light and small lithium-ion batteries has made some EVs cost-competitive with conventional vehicles. However, since batteries make up about fifty per cent of the value of an EV, the maturing of EV battery technologies will be critical for a complete transition to electrified transport. The new generation of batteries will have to improve the cost-effectiveness, safety, convenience and sustainability of EVs to entice the vast majority of regular vehicle buyers.
CEEW analysis suggests that research is increasingly focussed on reducing dependence on critical minerals and materials used for manufacturing of lithium-ion (Li-ion) batteries. For instance, cobalt is a necessary component of most EV batteries. But the market for cobalt is volatile and reserves are low, with most of the global cobalt resource concentrated in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Funding development of low cobalt battery-compositions like Nickel Manganese Cobalt Oxide 811 (NMC-811) would increase the resilience of the EV supply chain. Similarly, replacing graphite anodes with silicon has the potential to improve the battery’s energy density. Batteries could potentially become more compact and offer better vehicle mileage.
We can also fast-track the development of new chemistries to provide functional alternatives to conventional Li-ion EV batteries. Lithium sulphur (Li-S) batteries, that replace cobalt with sulphur in the cathode, could reduce material costs and environmental impact. Alternatively, metal-air batteries forgo the cathode entirely. Instead, they use a metal anode which reacts with atmospheric oxygen to produce energy. Metal-air batteries have some of the highest theoretical energy densities and could make use of easily available metals like sodium, zinc or aluminium, but the technology is still in a nascent stage and requires significant R&D.
The structure of the battery is also a possible avenue for innovation. For instance, solid-state batteries (SSB), that consist of a solid electrolyte rather than liquid, minimise the risk of fire. They have a high charging rate and energy density compared to conventional EV batteries. Another potential breakthrough is the commercialisation of structural batteries, also called massless energy storage systems. Structural batteries store energy while also acting as load-bearing components integral to the vehicle’s structure, negating the battery’s additional weight. While structural batteries would greatly increase the driving range and efficiency of EVs, the associated increase in the cost and complexity of the battery recycling process should be evaluated.
As electric vehicles become more mainstream, the focus on battery technology R&D has also increased. Companies and academic institutions are increasingly building teams and targeting their R&D spending towards the improvement of existing technologies. It is imperative that India takes a leading role by participating in global research and encouraging collaboration between Indian and global institutions. By focussing on R&D, India can not only accelerate decarbonisation of its own transport sector, but also play a pivotal role in accelerating the deployment of EVs in other countries too.