#3

In which I babble about batteries

Greetings, fellow Terran!

This is the third edition of Greenwhile, a periodical highlighting some of the people, projects and companies concerned with one of the most complex challenges we've ever faced: how to get our shit together before the planet "shakes us off like a bad case of fleas".

I’ve been coming across a lot of news about batteries recently, from potential breakthroughs to major announcements by car manufacturers. Baader–Meinhof phenomenon or not, I thought it’d be interesting to focus Greenwhile #3 on the importance of electric batteries (especially lithium-ion), the developments that can be expected, why they’re only one of the many required solutions, and, just out of curiosity, what the world’s biggest battery looks like.

#LessIntermittency

Chances are you’re reading this article on a device powered by a battery. If you’re anything like me, there are many more around you. Between portable chargers, controllers, my trusty laptop et al, there are ten such devices in the room where I am right now. 😬

Whether you can no longer imagine corded life or have fond memories of the days when folks practised their anti-social behaviour by staring at printed media rather than electronics, today we’re heavily dependent on battery technology*.

These enclosed chemical reactions aren’t essential only to keep cardiac pacemakers pacing and portable computers computing. They’re a key piece of the renewables puzzle too.

Sure, solar panels and wind turbines are great while the sun is shining and the wind is blowing – respectively. But what happens otherwise? Well, then you either plug into the electrical grid (which could be dirty) or a battery, in which you stored the surplus while there was energy flowing through the system. 

It’s quite simple: without storage, wind and solar are too intermittent to fully replace oil and coal.

Here lies a ‘green’ opportunity: it’s possible to repurpose used electric vehicle (EV) batteries as residential, commercial and grid-scale backup storage installations. There’s money in it too – for car manufacturers, tech startups and even one-man operations. According to Reuters, 55,000 batteries were recovered in 2018 and by 2025 this number could reach 3.4 million.

#LessExpensive

If you had to guess the percentage of the total cost of an EV that’s down to its battery, what would it be? 1%? 5%? 10%? 15%? A whopping 20%?

Nope, it’s up to 30%. Yeah, it’s a lot. In fact, no other car component costs this much. And this is both good and bad news.

Good news because “battery prices have fallen 88 percent over the last decade”. If this trend continues, the magic figure of $100/kilowatt hour (kWh) could be reached in three years – bringing price parity between unsubsidised EVs and ICE (internal combustion engine) vehicles.

Bad news because that trend has already slowed down. Such a consistent drop in prices between 2010 and 2020 was tied to the rapid expansion of output, which becomes much harder to match once the output is already considerable.

Luckily there’s more to it than simply driving costs down. Last September, the much-hyped Californian company QuantumScape shared some promising data on their solid-state** batteries. In a nutshell, this technology would allow for much faster charging times, more durability, less flammability, and more energy density.

There’s no such thing as a miracle, though. The likes of Volkswagen and Bill Gates may have invested heavily in QuantumScape, and for a while its market capitalisation (i.e.: the number of outstanding shares multiplied by the price of a single share) was higher than Ford’s, but QuantumScape has yet to begin commercial production.

#LessReinventing

Are batteries really the solution to all of our problems? Of course not! Remember: n-o m-i-r-a-c-l-e-s.

Mr. Gates tells it like it is:

The problem is that batteries are big and heavy. The more weight you’re trying to move, the more batteries you need to power the vehicle. But the more batteries you use, the more weight you add – and the more power you need. Even with big breakthroughs in battery technology, electric vehicles will probably never be a practical solution for things like 18-wheelers, cargo ships, and passenger jets. Electricity works when you need to cover short distances, but we need a different solution for heavy, long-haul vehicles.

What would be practical in those cases then?

Detroit-based Remora is tackling the 18-wheeler issue by retrofitting carbon dioxide capturers to existing trucks, a significantly cheaper and more scalable approach.

Headquartered in Stockholm, the folks at shipping company Wallenius Marine are developing the world’s largest wind-powered vessel. Their aim is to have one of these beauties in operation in the North Atlantic by 2024.

It’ll be a tad trickier to decarbonise the aviation industry, though the fact that refuelling tends to happen at very specific locations helps a lot. Hence hydrogen fuel cells might be our best bet. This video from the Economist describes a few of the obstacles involved.

#LessConventional

Finally, what does the world’s biggest battery look like? I’ll tell you this much: it’s not a big-ass AA alkaline powering the world’s biggest Duracell Bunny. As a matter of fact, the world's biggest battery doesn't even look like a battery.

As always, I hope you’ve learned a thing or two from this edition of Greenwhile. Now do me a favour, will you? Get off my lawn!

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* If it’s been way too long since you learned about the twitching frog, Alessandro Volta, cathodes and anodes, the good folks at TED-Ed have a great refresher on how batteries work.

** Ars Technica’s Scott K. Johnson explains this exciting technology way better than I possibly could here.

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The first, second and third editions of Greenwhile were originally published on LinkedIn, between February and March 2021.