I have carefully followed the nanotechnology-related developments for improving Li-ion batteries for use in mobile phones and other gadgets. However, I have been less enthusiastic about the prospects of nanotechnology in improving Li-ion batteries for use in electric vehicles( EVs).
My skepticism was initially tickled by John Petersen over at Alt Energy Stocks, whom I have referred to before in this blog, and who has new ammunition in his running doubt on the future of Li-ion batteries in EVs.
It seems Mr. Petersen has never been convinced that EVs powered by Li-ion batteries, nano-enabled or otherwise, were really the wave of the future. He got further confirmation of his doubts when he came across a free 2010 report from the National Research Council entitled “Hidden Costs of Energy, Unpriced Consequences of Energy Production and Use.”
According to Petersen, the report takes a life-cycle approach to looking at the total cost of 13 different methods of powering vehicles, ranging from the internal combustion engine to Li-ion battery powered cars.
It turns out when you look at the full life cycle they’re all about the same in terms of “health, climate and other unpriced damages that arise from the use of various energy sources for electricity, transportation, and heat.” And this is not just for now but for 20 years into the future, when the technologies for things like Li-ion batteries are supposed to improve dramatically.
Petersen’s article is targeted for investors and as such discusses some of the ideas that have been investment darlings at one time or another in the Li-ion battery technology sweepstakes, such as Ener1, A123 Systems, Altair Nanotechnologies, and Valence Technologies (VLNC). He goes further to warn of dark days for the EV manufacturer Tesla:
“Lithium-ion battery developers have already taken it on the chin, and there's no question in my mind that Tesla will be the next domino to fall. Its demise is every bit as predictable and certain as Ener1's was.”
Just so it’s clear, I am all in favor of EVs and for having them replace vehicles powered by internal combustion engines, but it just is not clear that Li-ion batteries with incremental improvements brought on by nanotechnology will be the power source for them.
Dexter Johnson is a contributing editor at IEEE Spectrum, with a focus on nanotechnology.