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Tag Archives: Electric Cars

Chart: Global Electric Car Sales Doubled in 2021

Source : Statista

This Chinese EV Sells At Just Over $5,000. So We Tried It

Mark Andrews wrote . . . . . . . . .

THE MINI EV costs around $5,000 new. It would cost more to spec the cigar humidor glove box option on a Rolls-Royce or add Apple CarPlay to a Ferrari than to buy the Mini EV outright.

So successful is Wuling’s Mini EV that not only are Chinese producers rapidly coming up with copycat cars, Wuling itself is busy making different versions of the vehicle, including a forthcoming cabriolet and a “long-range” version.

This EV is not available outside China, but we got behind the wheel of the “luxury” Macaron version in China to see if this super-cheap electric car was any good, and what US and European manufacturers could learn about how to make more affordable electric cars.

Luxury is relative, especially when you are dealing with a car as bare-bones as the original Mini EV. At the end of last year, professor Masayoshi Yamamoto at Nagoya University took apart a car shipped to Japan to see how it was possible to produce the vehicle so cheaply.

Yamamoto discovered that the parts were largely off-the-shelf and consumer-grade, rather than automotive grade. The Mini EV is therefore likely to have issues more frequently, but it will also be cheaper to repair.

The Wuling Hongguang Mini EV is the result of a three-way joint venture. SAIC Motor is the largest partner, with 50.1 percent ownership. One of China’s biggest automotive companies—in 2021 it was second by volume—SAIC is perhaps best known in Europe as the new owner of MG.

Casual observers of the auto industry may be more surprised to learn that the second-largest Wuling owner, with 44 percent, is General Motors (the small remainder of the joint venture belongs to Wuling itself). But GM and SAIC have been working together for 24 years. In 2003, China became, for a time, the second-largest single market for GM, selling Chinese-only versions of Buicks and launching Chevrolet in the jurisdiction in 2005.

Colors by Pantone

Externally, the Macaron version distinguishes itself from the standard Mini EV with a choice of funky pastel colors. WIRED’s is in avocado green, but the model is also available in lemon yellow and white peach pink. That the colors are a collaboration with Pantone speaks volumes; the Mini EV has managed a cult following, and the Macaron is clearly aimed at the young and cool. “Macaron” is written on the driver’s side rear pillar black insert, and the car features color-coordinated white wheels and roof.

Inside, the Macaron gets exterior color-matching inserts for the door pulls and highlights around what pass for controls. These are very limited, with three dials for climate control and a very small LCD screen for the radio.

There are also two USB type A ports that allow you to play music or charge a device. In a design choice that perhaps speaks to the affordability of display parts, the instrument panel is a full-color digital screen. This screen offers basic information such as speed, range, and electricity consumption, along with a natty 3D rendering of the Mini EV. The Macaron version gains a reversing camera, which the screen also shows.

Room for Four? Yes, Technically

Perhaps the biggest surprise is that the Mini EV can seat four. After all, the car is less than 3 meters long, 2,920 mm to be precise. That said, stuffing adults into those rear seats is not exactly comfortable. But thanks to the 1,621 mm height, the Mini EV is actually taller than it is wide, so head room is reasonable. There are also Isofix child-seat attachments, and the seats are indeed best for children—the lack of real headrests for adults makes any extended trip a strain.

While there is a hatch at the back, there is no real trunk to speak of. The space might be able to fit something very thin, but the bottom is taken up with charging cables. However, the rear seats do individually push down and pull up with a strap, which is essential if you want to transport anything other than people. In this configuration, the EV offers up 741 liters of space.

Given the rudimentary nature of the cabin, it’s no surprise that materials are utilitarian. Hard plastics are everywhere, and you can see the screw that attaches the door handle insert to the door. Among the Macaron’s many improvements over the basic Mini EV is a key safety feature—the driver now gets an airbag standard.

Driving: Mini Magic or Mario Kart?

China has had a thriving industry in low-speed electric vehicles (LSEVs), which in four-wheel form are more akin to golf carts. The Mini EV is a step up from this level—closer to a Japanese kei micro car. It can be used on normal roads without restriction, although its wheels are only 12 inches and its speed tops out at just 62 mph (100 km/h).

But the Mini EV’s diminutive size also makes darting in and out of traffic quite satisfying. The same cannot be said for the steering, which is generally imprecise. Above 30 mph, you end up fighting the car’s desire to go in a straight line. And with such small wheels, you feel every pothole, all the more so given the poorly padded seats.

A distinct whine from the electric motor accompanies you as you drive along. Priced this low, there is not much insulating the car from road noise. Luckily as you’re unlikely to ever get the Mini EV much above 50 mph this never becomes too much of a problem.

Surprisingly, the EV has a selector button hidden behind the steering wheel that lets you choose between Eco and Sport modes. Powering the rear wheels is an electric motor delivering 20 kW (27 hp) and 85 Nm of torque. Sport seems to be the better of the two modes, providing not only slightly smarter acceleration but also more noticeable braking regeneration.

One-pedal driving is not really possible, as the car simply takes too long to slow down—probably because it only weighs 700 kg (1,543 lbs). Wuling is coy regarding acceleration figures, but since the vehicle is electric and has instantaneous torque, it isn’t unduly slow in town traffic.

There’s a choice between 9.3- and 13.8-kWh battery packs, which are good for ranges of 75 miles (120 km) and 106 miles (170 km), respectively, under the already generous NEDC standard. Charging on a 220V supply takes 6.5 hours for the smaller battery and a full 9 hours for the 13.8 kWh pack.

With no fast-charging capability, you really are stuck using the Mini EV as a city car. Given all the other foibles detailed here, that is probably not a bad thing. But as a cheap introduction to electric family motoring, the car is infinitely safer and better than a scooter or motorbike.

Even though you cannot buy this car outside of China, if we had to rate it on WIRED’s scoring system, we’d charitably give it a 5 out of 10 (Wired: Bargain basement price for an EV. Safer than a scooter. Can seat four. Trendy…sort of. Tired: Limited to being a city car. Uncomfortable. Little safety equipment. Wayward steering.) The score not being a “4” is mainly down to the considerable value on offer here, but we’d find it hard to ignore that lack of safety kit.

Speaking of value, prices for the Mini EV originally started at RMB28,800 ($4,389), while the 13.8-kWh luxury Macaron version we tested retailed for RMB43,600 ($6,645) until recently. But increased battery costs have seen prices rise by around $1,000. Astonishingly, the company is reportedly making less than $14 profit on each car.

A Mini EV for Europe and US

The poor profit margin hasn’t stopped Wuling and its sibling brand Baojun from creating more cars in the same vein. Wuling had always produced microvans aimed at rural farmers and commercial buyers, so producing the Mini EV was a surprising move.

Baojun, on the other hand, is a Wuling sub-brand aimed at the car market and was earlier to micro EVs than its parent company, with both the Smart-like E100 and E200. Both of these only seat two people, and the E200 is also sold in a slightly restyled manner as the Wuling Nano, with a more powerful motor and longer ranges. Being two-seaters, they’ve never really sold well, but the E300 (aka Kiwi EV) in many ways replicates the Mini EV formula, except it costs around twice as much and features a chunky robot-like appearance and desirable features such as fast charging.

Wuling itself may be hoping to replicate the Mini EV’s success with its forthcoming Air EV, which appears to be a move into pricier models and could conceivably signal a desire to go after overseas markets.

Dartz, a Latvian company known for bulletproof SUVs, was planning to sell the Mini EV as the Freze Nikrob in Europe, but those plans appear to have changed. “Nikrob was a temporary inter-step,” says company founder Leonard Yankelovich. “We will keep our own label, Freze [formerly Frese], and this car will be not just be a rebadged Wuling Hongguang Mini EV, like it was under the Nikrob label, but it will be a [new body] car.”

Dartz’s decision to redesign the car’s body highlights one of the obvious problems with selling the Chinese car in Western markets: safety. Under Euro NCAP regulations, for example, electronic stability control (ESC) is mandatory, but the Mini EV lacks that feature.

Could General Motors at least apply lessons learned from producing this super-cheap EV to other markets? According to Tu Le, founder and managing director of Sino Auto Insights, there are two possibilities. The Mini EV has appealed to younger buyers in China, and he feels GM could target a similar demographic in the US, or in an emerging market, where a small city car would appeal. Or it could take a very different route. “If we aren’t limited by business model, the data could be used to develop a shared car, or a ride-hailing city car, that could be used in city centers where passenger cars are banned—a growing and likely permanent trend,” he says.

With fossil fuel prices soaring, it’s hardly surprising that most markets are crying out for cheaper EVs. An electrified version of Tata’s Nano—which is dubbed the “world’s cheapest car,” costs just over $2,000, and is getting surprisingly decent reviews—has been rumored for some time now.

In December, GM announced that Mahmoud Samara, a VP for Cadillac North America, had been made president of GM Europe. Samara said that one of his key goals for GM would be to “transform operations in Europe into an agile mobility startup.” “Globally, GM is investing $35 billion dollars in electric and autonomous vehicles by 2025,” he said at the time, “and we will focus closely on what customers need market by market, and where we will leverage our global investments in the areas of EVs and AVs to compete and win.”

We may not legally be able to get ahold of the Mini EV as it sells in China, but there is an outside chance GM will be using the know-how gained from producing this budget electric car to release a US or European EV that retails below the $10,000 mark. Nissan’s Leaf remains the cheapest electric car in the US market, with the entry-level model priced at $20,875 (after the $7,500 federal tax credit). So such a car, even devoid of bells or whistles, could make electric motoring affordable for a much broader market.

Source : WIRED

Infographic: All Electric Car Models Available in the U.S.

See large image . . . . . .

Source : Visual Capitalist

Charts: Global Sales of Electric Vehicles Now More than Hybrid Vehicles

Global Sales Forecast of EV, HV and PHV (Plug-in Hybrid)

Source : Nikkei

Charts: Global Sales of Electric Vehicles

See large image . . . . . .

Chart: More Choice of Electric Vehicles Available in the U.S.

Source : Bloomberg

Electric Cars Aren’t Just Vehicles. They’re Big Batteries.

Neel Dhanesha wrote . . . . . . . . .

Joe Biden is a self-professed “car guy.” As of late, he’s become an electric car guy. And he wants his fellow Americans to be electric car people too. Transportation is responsible for 29 percent of all US greenhouse gas emissions, and Biden’s ambitious climate policy, which aims to create a net-zero economy in the US by 2050, partially hinges on Americans switching from gas- to electric-powered cars and trucks.

But Biden is running into roadblocks. While the bipartisan infrastructure bill he signed into law in November included funding to build half a million EV chargers across the nation, the Build Back Better bill that would have included thousands of dollars in tax credits to help Americans buy electric cars is currently stalled in the Senate as Democrats try to find a compromise that satisfies Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV), who has refused to sign it in its current form. Another challenge is how Americans feel about EVs compared to traditional cars: A 2021 Pew Research Center report found that 51 percent of US adults oppose a proposal to phase out production of gasoline-powered cars and trucks.

So what will it take to convince more people to embrace EVs? One answer might be for everyone to rethink what EVs actually are. Most Americans, including Biden, talk about electric vehicles solely as modes of transport — which is understandable, given they have motors and wheels and get us around. But they are so much more than cars: they’re batteries, and batteries have uses far beyond transport. Done right, integrating EVs into American society could help prevent power blackouts, stabilize the US’s crumbling electric grid, and make solar and wind energy more reliable sources of power for more people. The first step is to stop thinking about electric vehicles as cars that happen to be powered by batteries, and instead see them as batteries that happen to be inside cars.

Getting there won’t be easy. “This sort of perception issue can be a challenge because it’s really a paradigm shift,” said Sam Houston, a senior analyst at the Union of Concerned Scientists, a science-focused nonprofit based in Massachusetts. Historically, vehicles have mostly had a singular use in American society: to get people and goods from one place to another. Outside of ride-sharing, cars only serve their owners. Most gas-powered cars spend the majority of the day sitting idle while we are at home or work. But electric cars can do a lot when they’re not moving.

“What we need to get to is not just thinking about vehicles for transportation and a grid to support those vehicles, but sort of a mutually beneficial relationship between grids and vehicles,” Houston told Recode. As an example, she pointed to renewable energy: One of the biggest challenges to integrating renewable energy into the grid is that it’s unpredictable. Sometimes there may be too much wind and solar energy, and there’s no good way to store the excess. Instead, extra renewable energy often goes to waste untapped. Electric vehicles, Houston said, could be a solution to this problem.

A car left at a charger in an office parking lot during the workday, for example, can optimize its charging schedule so that most or all of the power used to charge the car comes from renewable sources, making the most of clean energy that might otherwise go wasted.

An electric vehicle charges in a parking garage next to a parking space reserved for EV charging.
Widespread charging infrastructure could help make integrating EVs into the grid a reality. Drew Angerer/Getty Images
EVs can also be useful to the grid even if there’s no clean energy available. Utility engineers are continually making adjustments to the amount of power flowing through the grid to ensure electricity is being generated and delivered at a consistent frequency. Too little power generation to meet demand is one of the most obvious reasons for blackouts, but too much power is just as big an issue. Electric vehicles could act like sponges in those situations, explained Kyri Baker, an assistant professor of engineering at the University of Colorado Boulder and a member of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers.

“If you have a bunch of EVs just sitting in a parking lot, they can charge or stop charging in order to make small minute adjustments in the supply and demand balance to maintain frequency,” Baker told Recode. Instead of simply charging their batteries to full as soon as they’re plugged in, cars that are sitting at chargers for extended periods of time can wait to charge until the grid needs help getting rid of excess energy, or they can reserve a portion of their batteries for helping with frequency regulation.

That’s just the beginning. One of the most ambitious uses of EV batteries comes from a concept called bidirectional charging, or sending electricity back out of an EV to charge things ranging from power tools at construction sites to entire homes during blackouts.

This is particularly alluring in an era of more frequent and more severe blackouts caused by extreme weather: EV owners could conceivably get power at home during blackouts by plugging their car into a charger in their home — and this would eliminate the need for the sometimes deadly, carbon monoxide-spewing diesel generators many people currently rely on.

Electric vehicle manufacturers are starting to use this idea as a selling point. Volkswagen’s electric vehicles will support bidirectional charging starting this year, and Ford’s upcoming F-150 Lightning, an electric version of the country’s most popular pickup truck, is designed to be able to power an entire home for up to three days. An early ad for the F-150 Lightning, released about three months after a series of winter storms in Texas knocked out power for millions and killed hundreds across the state in 2021, showed off the truck’s credentials: It can “help build your house,” the ad’s narrator said, “and if need be, power that house.”

The marketing seems to be working; as of December, nearly 200,000 people had preordered the F-150 Lightning. “Ten years ago I never would have thought that Ford would have put out an electric F-150, and I would have also never predicted how many people would have preordered it, especially in rural and conservative areas,” said Baker. “Climate change is hitting everywhere in the US, and so whether you believe in the science behind it or not, you want to protect your family. Having a large battery that can be a backup generator is just one way to do that.”

Not every carmaker is as open to bidirectional charging as Ford and Volkswagen, though. The batteries in electric vehicles are larger versions of the lithium-ion batteries used in phones and laptops, and they degrade over time just as the batteries in our phones do — which means the range of an EV will reduce over time. Most electric vehicles come with battery warranties that are voided if the batteries are discharged to power something else, in part because constantly charging and discharging a battery can make it degrade faster.

Baker isn’t quite as worried about degradation as some others in the industry. “Every time I have these conversations with people about bidirectional charging, the pushback is always that it’ll degrade the battery,” Baker told Recode. “But if you take a look at how often people in the US replace their cars, I don’t think that’s going to be a roadblock. In terms of the car’s lifespan, I feel like we’re blowing this out of proportion.” Americans tend to keep their cars for 12 years on average, and electric vehicles often enter the used car market long before their batteries see major degradation.

And batteries can still be useful even if they’re too degraded for use in cars. Houston told Recode they tend to be considered too degraded once they can only hold about 80 percent of the original capacity, which is still a significant amount of energy. “We really need to figure out the reuse and recycling angle for after the vehicle is done and the battery may have a lot of capacity left,” Houston said.

One possible solution — and another reason to see EVs as more than vehicles — is that old EV batteries can be removed from cars and used to store solar and wind power. This idea is already seeing some traction: A startup called B2U Storage Solutions has set up an energy storage facility in California that stores enough energy in an array of 160 used Nissan Leaf batteries to power more than 90 homes a day. And Hyundai is partnering with a solar energy developer and a utility company serving San Antonio, Texas, to set up a similar facility.

The obvious next step, Baker says, is to solve the degradation and recycling problems at the same time by setting up processes that would allow EV owners to easily swap out their old batteries in much the same way you can replace the battery in your phone. Those degraded batteries could then be sent to energy storage facilities like the one in California.

On a technical level, repurposing EV batteries for non-transport uses is fairly easy to set up, explained Mike Jacobs, a senior energy analyst at the Union of Concerned Scientists. The same cable that delivers energy to an EV can be used to draw energy out of the battery and use it to power a home. But it’s more complicated when it comes to energy policy and logistics in the US. Most homes aren’t wired for receiving backup power in blackouts — Ford’s own website includes the caveat that backup power would only work “when home is properly equipped” with a switch that disconnects the house from the grid. And just as many parts of the US power grid aren’t set up to integrate solar and wind power into regular operations, it’s not equipped to draw on energy from electric cars when needed.

The main problem, Jacobs told Recode, is that utility companies have historically had a monopoly on energy generation in the country, and they’re unwilling to let go of their literal and metaphorical power. “It really comes down to the enthusiasm of the utility to sort it out,” Jacobs said. “And whether there’s any value for them to spend the time on it.” Profit-wise, there doesn’t seem to be a reason why a utility would want to do that.

One of the starkest examples of the hold utilities have over energy generation in the US comes from solar panels, Baker told Recode. For the safety of their linesmen, utilities set up the circuits in most homes to simply shut down in a blackout, even if backup power is available. “If you have rooftop solar, chances are, during a grid outage, your rooftop solar won’t be able to power your house,” Baker said. “This is a huge issue because people buy solar thinking they’re going to power their houses during an outage.” To make rooftop solar — and backup power from EVs — work during a blackout, Baker explained, homeowners would have to wire their panels and EV charger on a separate circuit from the energy provided by the utility, which is a costly proposition that also undoes the benefits of integrating EV batteries into the grid.

But we don’t have to make a choice between the grid and backup power from EV batteries: They can coexist, and effectively integrating them could have a significant impact on emissions. “The technology is here,” said Houston. “It’s a matter of breaking down the policy and administrative barriers.”

Breaking down those barriers would help create a paradigm shift in how we think about electricity generation, just as using our cars as batteries would be a paradigm shift. Electric vehicles are by no means a magic fix to our climate woes — there are plenty of sources of greenhouse gas emissions outside of cars, and a reduction in transportation emissions will only go so far if our EVs get their energy from fossil fuel-powered plants. But their potential stretches far beyond their wheels, and more Americans recognizing that could mean more will decide to make the switch to electric. Saving our planet is going to require big, bold changes; buying a battery that just so happens to provide transportation is the rare tangible contribution regular folks can make to help solve the climate crisis.

“And in reality,” said Jacobs, “when we’re talking about giving up fossil fuels, this all counts.”

Source : Vox

Charts: Europe Leads in Electric Car Sales, China Second

Source : Pew Research Center

An Electrifying Future for Hypercars?

Jim Motavalli wrote . . . . . . . . .

After more than 50 years of V8- and V12-powered super- and hypercars that evolved incrementally, change is in the air. Increasingly, the best-performing European, Japanese, and American vehicles are battery powered. Penta went to the experts to find out where the high-end market is going.

Richard Koppelman is president of Miller Motorcars in Greenwich, Conn. The location has an interesting history, as it was once home to Luigi Chinetti’s pioneering U.S. Ferrari operation. Today, Miller handles the biggest names: Ferrari, Maserati, Alfa-Romeo, McLaren, Aston Martin, Bentley, Rolls-Royce, Pagani, De Tomaso, and Pininfarina.

“Will the super- and hypercar market go electric? All of the companies we work with have the capacity for electrification, but whether it actually goes in that direction I’m not sure,” Koppelman says. The hypercar market, Koppelman says, “took many years to mature, but now it is mature. And with Covid, some people are realizing that life can be short—they don’t want to wait for things they want. Meanwhile, the manufacturers haven’t been able to build enough cars to meet the demand.”

Koppelman says that some lightly used luxury cars, such as the Rolls-Royce Cullinan, are actually selling for more than the new ones that are hard to find. There is a four-year waiting list for the multi-million-dollar Italian hypercars of Horacio Pagani, he adds.

“Full electrification is happening,” says Brett David of Prestige Imports in Miami. “It’s a unique time in the sector.”
Prestige Imports
Miller has sold six US$5.8 million Bugatti Divos, and two US$2 million Pininfarina Bautistas. “There is a lot of money around, and people are spending it on nice things,” Koppelman says.

Brett David can confirm that. Since 2007 (when he was 19) he has run Prestige Imports in North Miami, a dealership started by his father in 1977. Franchises include Lamborghini, Pagani, Lotus, and Karma.

“Full electrification is happening,” David says. “It’s a unique time in the sector.” He also cites such hybrid supercars as the Porsche 918 Spyder, Ferrari La Ferrari, McLaren P1 as paving the way for plugging in. And the merger of the storied Bugatti brand with the Croatia-based Rimac electric car company is a landmark deal.

The market for such cars appears to be expanding. Bugatti said early this month that 45%of North American orders for the new US$3.8 million, 1,600-horsepower Chiron Super Sports, to be delivered next year, are from customers new to the brand. Obviously, conventionally powered cars such as the Pagani Huayra Roadster BC (with a bespoke V12 engine developed by Mercedes AMG for the company) are still selling very well indeed. “That one is such an important launch for Pagani,” David says. It’s exclusive; only 40 will be built.

David said that buyers are often responding to “the emotions behind the car, the sound of them—the music they make from those V12s when the RPMs go up. They won’t have a response like that if they just buy the cars as investments and move them around on trailers.” He says some of his Pagani customers put several thousand miles a year on their cars.

There’s not much music emanating from very quiet electric cars. Though as Koppelman points out they are often capable of “tremendous bursts of speed” that can eclipse that of internal-combustion supercars (though top speed is frequently lower). The “music” issue is sometimes addressed by manufacturers adding electronic sounds that rise from the car’s audio system as the speed increases.

The Miami-based Christopher Pagani, son of founder Horacio, tells Penta that he doesn’t expect the company’s approach to making cars will change all that much, though the powertrain might. “We produce 40 to 50 cars per year,” he says. “If they’re powered by a V12, a V10, a hybrid drivetrain or electric, I don’t think it will matter all that much to our clients—as long as the car stays very exclusive.”

Pagani’s next car, code-named C10, will stay with V12 power and will have more than 800 horsepower, Pagani says. “We talked to our Mercedes-Benz partners, and we will have access to V12 engines through 2025.”

There isn’t a hue and cry from customers for an electric Pagani, but clearly the company sees the future will involve plugs. “We are developing a full-electric Pagani that will use some of the platform from the C10,” Pagani says. “We want to do something fun. Our hypercars are the lightest on the market, like a Ford Fiesta with a V12. With a full electric, we don’t want to lose the fun or agility that comes with a light car. With electrification it is early for us, but our eyes are open.”

Because of the long waiting list for new Paganis, some pre-owned models have been trading for truly premium prices. A 2017 Pagani Zonda Riviera sold for US$5.885 million at a Silverstone Auction in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, in 2019.

Some manufacturers are learning to support their classic models with organized drives, experience centers and restoration services. It’s a trend that will undoubtedly support higher values as the cars age.

But dealers are making it happen, too. Coming up, David says, are track days and a special event involving 30 Pagani owners, and another 10 interested parties who might want to become part of that world. “It’s good to be in the world of luxury right now.” Will dealers still be selling internal-combustion hypercars in 20 years? For at least another 10 years, David says. “After that, maybe we’ll only be able to drive them on racetracks.”

Source : Barron’s

Electric Cars and Batteries: How Will the World Produce Enough?

Davide Castelvecchi wrote . . . . . . . . .

‎The age of the electric car is upon us. Earlier this year, the US automobile giant General Motors announced that it aims to stop selling petrol-powered and diesel models by 2035. Audi, based in Germany, plans to stop producing such vehicles by 2033. Many other automotive multinationals have issued similar road maps. Suddenly, major carmakers’ foot-dragging on electrifying their fleets is turning into a rush for the exit.

The electrification of personal mobility is picking up speed in a way that even its most ardent proponents might not have dreamt of just a few years ago. In many countries, government mandates will accelerate change. But even without new policies or regulations, half of global passenger-vehicle sales in 2035 will be electric, according to the BloombergNEF (BNEF) consultancy in London.

This massive industrial conversion marks a “shift from a fuel-intensive to a material-intensive energy system”, declared the International Energy Agency (IEA) in May1. In the coming decades, hundreds of millions of vehicles will hit the roads, carrying massive batteries inside them (see ‘Going electric’). And each of those batteries will contain tens of kilograms of materials that have yet to be mined.

Anticipating a world dominated by electric vehicles, materials scientists are working on two big challenges. One is how to cut down on the metals in batteries that are scarce, expensive, or problematic because their mining carries harsh environmental and social costs. Another is to improve battery recycling, so that the valuable metals in spent car batteries can be efficiently reused. “Recycling will play a key role in the mix,” says Kwasi Ampofo, a mining engineer who is the lead analyst on metals and mining at BNEF.

Battery- and carmakers are already spending billions of dollars on reducing the costs of manufacturing and recycling electric-vehicle (EV) batteries — spurred in part by government incentives and the expectation of forthcoming regulations. National research funders have also founded centres to study better ways to make and recycle batteries. Because it is still less expensive, in most instances, to mine metals than to recycle them, a key goal is to develop processes to recover valuable metals cheaply enough to compete with freshly mined ones. “The biggest talker is money,” says Jeffrey Spangenberger, a chemical engineer at Argonne National Laboratory in Lemont, Illinois, who manages a US federally funded lithium-ion battery-recycling initiative, called ReCell.

Lithium future

The first challenge for researchers is to reduce the amounts of metals that need to be mined for EV batteries. Amounts vary depending on the battery type and model of vehicle, but a single car lithium-ion battery pack (of a type known as NMC532) could contain around 8 kg of lithium, 35 kg of nickel, 20 kg of manganese and 14 kg of cobalt, according to figures from Argonne National Laboratory.

Analysts don’t anticipate a move away from lithium-ion batteries any time soon: their cost has plummeted so dramatically that they are likely to be the dominant technology for the foreseeable future. They are now 30 times cheaper than when they first entered the market as small, portable batteries in the early 1990s, even as their performance has improved. BNEF projects that the cost of a lithium-ion EV battery pack will fall below US$100 per kilowatt-hour by 2023, or roughly 20% lower than today (see ‘Plummeting costs of batteries’). As a result, electric cars — which are still more expensive than conventional ones — should reach price parity by the mid-2020s. (By some estimates, electric cars are already cheaper than petrol vehicles over their lifetimes, thanks to being less expensive to power and maintain.)

To produce electricity, lithium-ion batteries shuttle lithium ions internally from one layer, called the anode, to another, the cathode. The two are separated by yet another layer, the electrolyte. Cathodes are the main limiting factor in battery performance — and they are where the most valuable metals lie.

The cathode of a typical lithium-ion battery cell is a thin layer of goo containing micro-scale crystals, which are often similar in structure to minerals that occur naturally in Earth’s crust or mantle, such as olivines or spinels. The crystals pair up negatively charged oxygen with positively charged lithium and various other metals — in most electric cars, a mix of nickel, manganese and cobalt. Recharging a battery rips lithium ions out of these oxide crystals and pulls the ions to a graphite-based anode where they are stored, sandwiched between layers of carbon atoms (see ‘Electric heart’).

Lithium itself is not scarce. A June report by BNEF2 estimated that the current reserves of the metal — 21 million tonnes, according to the US Geological Survey — are enough to carry the conversion to EVs through to the mid-century. And reserves are a malleable concept, because they represent the amount of a resource that can be economically extracted at current prices and given current technology and regulatory requirements. For most materials, if demand goes up, reserves eventually do, too.

As cars electrify, the challenge lies in scaling up lithium production to meet demand, Ampofo says. “It’s going to grow by about seven times between 2020 and 2030.”

This could result in temporary shortages and dramatic price swings, he says. But market hiccups will not change the picture in the long term. “As more processing capacity is built, these shortages are likely to work themselves out,” says Haresh Kamath, a specialist in energy storage at the Electric Power Research Institute in Palo Alto, California.

The increase in lithium mining carries its own environmental concerns: current forms of extraction require copious amounts of energy (for lithium extracted from rock) or water (for extraction from brines). But more-modern techniques that extract lithium from geothermal water, using geothermal energy to drive the process, are considered more benign. And despite this environmental toll, mining lithium will help to displace destructive fossil-fuel extraction.

Researchers are more worried about cobalt, which is the most valuable ingredient of current EV batteries. Two-thirds of global supply are mined in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Human-rights activists have raised concerns over conditions there, in particular over child labour and harm to workers’ health; like other heavy metals, cobalt is toxic if not handled properly. Alternative sources could be exploited, such as the metal-rich ‘nodules’ found on the sea floor, but they present their own environmental hazards. And nickel, another major component of EV batteries, could also face shortages.

Managing metals

To address the issues with raw materials, a number of laboratories have been experimenting with low-cobalt or cobalt-free cathodes. But cathode materials must be carefully designed so that their crystal structures don’t break up, even if more than half the lithium ions are removed during charging. And abandoning cobalt altogether often lowers a battery’s energy density, says materials scientist Arumugam Manthiram at the University of Texas in Austin, because it alters the cathode’s crystal structure and how tightly it can bind lithium.

Manthiram is among the researchers who have solved that problem — at least in the lab — by showing that cobalt can be eliminated from cathodes without compromising performance. “The cobalt-free material we reported has the same crystal structure as lithium cobalt oxide, and therefore the same energy density,” or even better, says Manthiram. His team did this by fine-tuning the way in which cathodes are produced and adding small quantities of other metals — while retaining the cathode’s cobalt-oxide crystal structure. Manthiram says it should be straightforward to adopt this process in existing factories, and has founded a start-up firm called TexPower to try to bring it to market within the next two years. Other labs around the world are working on cobalt-free batteries: in particular, the pioneering EV maker Tesla, based in Palo Alto, California, has said it plans to eliminate the metal from its batteries in the next few years.

Sun Yang-Kook at Hanyang University in Seoul, South Korea, is another materials scientist who has achieved similar performance in cobalt-free cathodes. Sun says that some technical problems might remain in creating the new cathodes, because the process relies on refining nickel-rich ores, which can require expensive pure-oxygen atmospheres. But many researchers now consider the cobalt problem essentially solved. Manthiram and Sun “have shown that you can make really good materials without cobalt and [that] perform really well”, says Jeff Dahn, a chemist at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Canada.

Nickel, although not as expensive as cobalt, isn’t cheap, either. Researchers want to remove it as well. “We have addressed the cobalt scarcity, but because we’re scaling so rapidly, we are heading straight for a nickel problem,” says Gerbrand Ceder, a materials scientist at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in Berkeley, California. But removing both cobalt and nickel will require switching to radically different crystal structures for cathode materials.

One approach is to adopt materials called disordered rock salts. They get their name because of their cubic crystal structure, which is similar to that of sodium chloride, with oxygen playing the part of chlorine and a mix of heavy metals replacing the sodium. Over the past decade, Ceder’s team and other groups have shown that certain lithium-rich rock salts allow the lithium to easily slip in and out — a crucial property to enable repeated charging5. But, unlike conventional cathode materials, disordered rock salts do not require cobalt or nickel to remain stable during that process. In particular, they can be made with manganese, which is cheap and plentiful, Ceder says.

Recycle better

If batteries are to be made without cobalt, researchers will face an unintended consequence. The metal is the main factor that makes recycling batteries economical, because other materials, especially lithium, are currently cheaper to mine than to recycle.

In a typical recycling plant, batteries are first shredded, which turns cells into a powdered mixture of all the materials used. That mix is then broken down into its elemental constituents, either by liquefying it in a smelter (pyrometallurgy) or by dissolving it in acid (hydrometallurgy). Finally, metals are precipitated out of solution as salts.

Research efforts have focused on improving the process to make recycled lithium economically attractive. The vast majority of lithium-ion batteries are produced in China, Japan and South Korea; accordingly, recycling capabilities are growing fastest there. For example, Foshan-based Guangdong Brunp — a subsidiary of CATL, China’s largest maker of lithium-ion cells — can recycle 120,000 tonnes of batteries per year, according to a spokesperson. That’s the equivalent of what would be used in more than 200,000 cars, and the firm is able to recover most of the lithium, cobalt and nickel. Government policies are helping to encourage this: China already has financial and regulatory incentives for battery companies that source materials from recycling firms instead of importing freshly mined ones, says Hans Eric Melin, managing director of Circular Energy Storage, a consulting company in London.

The European Commission has proposed strict battery-recycling requirements which could be phased in from 2023 — although prospects for the bloc to develop a domestic recycling industry are uncertain6. The administration of US President Joe Biden, meanwhile, wants to spend billions of dollars to foster a domestic EV battery-manufacturing industry and support recycling, but hasn’t yet proposed regulations beyond existing legislation classing batteries as hazardous waste that must be safely disposed of. Some North American start-up firms say they can already recover the majority of a battery’s metals, including lithium, at costs that are competitive with those of mining them, although analysts say that, at this stage, the overall economics are only advantageous because of the cobalt.

A more radical approach is to reuse the cathode crystals, rather than break down their structure, as hydro- and pyrometallurgy do. ReCell, the US$15-million collaboration managed by Spangenberger, includes three national labs, three universities and numerous industry players. It is developing techniques that will enable recyclers to extract the cathode crystals and resell them. One crucial step, after the batteries have been shredded, is to separate the cathode materials from the rest using heat, chemicals or other methods. “The reason we’re so enthusiastic about retaining the crystal structure is that it took a lot of energy and know-how to put that together. That’s where a lot of the value is,” says Linda Gaines, a physical chemist at Argonne and the principal analyst for ReCell.

These reprocessing techniques work with a range of crystal structures and compositions, Gaines says. But if a recycling centre receives a waste stream that includes many types of battery, various types of cathode material will end up in the recycling cauldron. This could complicate efforts to separate out the different cathode-crystal types. Although processes developed by ReCell can easily separate nickel, manganese and cobalt from other kinds of cells, such as those that use lithium iron phosphate, for example, they will have a hard time separating two types that both contain cobalt and nickel, but in different proportions. For this and other reasons, it will be crucial for batteries to carry some kind of standardized barcode that tells recyclers what’s inside, Spangenberger says.

Another potential hurdle is that the chemistry of cathodes is constantly evolving. The cathodes that manufacturers will use 10–15 years from now — at the end of the life cycle of present-day cars — could very well be different from today’s. The most efficient way to get the materials out could be for the manufacturer to collect its own batteries at the end of the life cycle. And batteries should be designed from the ground up in a way that makes them easier to take apart, Gaines adds.

Materials scientist Andrew Abbott at the University of Leicester, UK, argues that recycling will be much more profitable if it skips the shredding stage and takes the cells apart directly. He and his collaborators have developed a technique for separating out cathode materials using ultrasound7. This works best in battery cells that are packed flat rather than rolled up (as common ‘cylindrical’ cells are), and, Abbott adds, can make recycled materials much cheaper than virgin mined metals. He is involved in a £14-million (US$19-million) UK government research scheme on battery sustainability, called ReLiB.

Crank up the volume

Whichever recycling processes become standard, scale will help. Although media reports tend to describe the coming deluge of spent batteries as a looming crisis, analysts see it as a big opportunity, says Melin. Once millions of large batteries begin to reach the end of their lives, economies of scale will kick in and make recycling more efficient — and the business case for it more attractive.

Analysts say the example of lead-acid batteries — the ones that start petrol-powered cars — gives reason for optimism. Because lead is toxic, those batteries are classified as hazardous waste and have to be disposed of safely. But an efficient industry has developed to recycle them instead, even though lead is cheap. “Over 98% of lead-acid batteries are recovered and recycled,” Kamath says. “The value of a lead-acid battery is even lower than a lithium-ion battery. But because of volume, it makes sense to recycle anyway,” Melin says.

It might take a while until the market for lithium-ion batteries reaches its full size, in part because these batteries have become exceptionally durable: present car batteries might last up to 20 years, Kamath says. In a typical electric car sold today, the battery pack will outlive the vehicle it was built into, says Melin.

That means that when old EVs are sent to scrap, the batteries are often neither thrown away nor recycled. Instead, they are taken out and reused for less-demanding applications, such as stationary energy storage or powering boats. After ten years of use, a car battery such as the Nissan Leaf’s, which originally held 50 kilowatt-hours, will have lost at most 20% of its capacity.

Another May report from the IEA, an organization noted for its historically cautious forecasts, included a road map8 to achieve global net-zero emissions by mid-century, which includes conversion to electric transport as a cornerstone. The confidence that this is achievable reflects a growing consensus among policymakers, researchers and manufacturers that challenges to electrifying cars are now entirely solvable — and that if we want to have any hope of keeping climate change to a manageable level, there is no time to lose.

But some researchers complain that electric vehicles seem to be held to an impossible standard in terms of the environmental impact of their batteries. “It would be unfortunate and counterproductive to discard a good solution by insisting on a perfect solution,” says Kamath. “That does not mean, of course, that we should not work aggressively on the battery disposal question.”

Source : Nature