In the first quarter of 2022 alone, 2 million electric vehicles (including fully electric and plug-in hybrid models) were sold across the globe. That’s a 75% increase from 2021’s first quarter, which ultimately resulted in a record-breaking 6.6 million worldwide sales by the year’s end. While rising gas prices have factored into the spike in electric vehicle sales, climate change has arguably been one of the main driving forces behind fuel-to-electric initiatives. Policies like the United States Federal Sustainability Plan have placed critical emphasis on the need for all-electric vehicle fleets by 2035 and federal carbon neutrality by 2050 in order to avoid catastrophic climate impacts.
Though electric vehicles emit roughly half the emissions of a traditional combustion engine, they are not without their own set of hurdles. As supply demands skyrocket, so does the urgency to develop new electric car technology, including lithium-ion battery alternatives and electric grid reliability, to meet climate goals and overcome potential challenges.
Ramping Up Lithium Production
Lithium-ion batteries are, by far, the most common power unit for electric vehicles due to their higher energy per unit mass, power-to-rate ratio, and overall efficiency. Traditionally, lithium is mined from underground reservoirs, most notably in Australia, Chile, China, and Argentina. This labor-intensive process requires significant amounts of time, water, and chemicals and has drawn criticism over land destruction and contamination. In order to meet electric vehicle demands, conventional lithium supplies are expected to climb over 300% from 2021 through 2030. However, concerns have been raised about meeting such steep supply demands and lack of sustainability; these must be addressed in order to keep green initiatives on track.
Enter direct lithium extraction (DLE) technology, a recent geothermal innovation that could not only improve lithium lead time and supplies domestically in the United States, but also reduce environmental concerns and lower costs. DLE involves extricating lithium from underground water brines using geothermal energy for more renewable production. DLE is currently in its early stages, but has gained traction among industry experts as a potential leading alternative to traditional lithium extraction.
Developing Alternatives to Lithium-Ion Batteries
Lithium-ion batteries deliver a number of fundamental advantages, but they aren’t without their own set of drawbacks. Most notable is thermal runaway, where lithium-ion cells begin to uncontrollably self heat. From ejecting gas and shrapnel to smoke and fire, thermal runaway has called lithium-ion battery safety into question. Between juggling safety concerns and the desire to develop an even more efficient battery, a number of alternative power unit options have entered the spotlight.
Solid-state batteries have received arguably received the most attention. These batteries are very similar to lithium-ion but have one major difference. Rather than using a liquid or polymer gel like current lithium-ion batteries, solid-state alternatives are designed with a solid electrolyte, providing greater power density, less weight, and effectively no thermal runaway risks. However, lithium, cobalt, and nickel are still used to manufacture these batteries.
Advances have been made to shift away from these metals in favor of more sustainable resources. Sodium-ion batteries, while still in early-state development, have made waves in the industry. These solutions have been claimed to offer improvements for overall safety, lower raw material costs, and greater environmental regard. Sodium is far more plentiful than lithium and costs less to extract and purify.
Yet, some researchers are on the push to create a completely metal-free solution. Polypeptide organic radical batteries, if proven to perform at levels required for electric vehicles, could become the cleanest and most sustainable power unit source. Researchers believe that these batteries could be stable enough for safe operation, degrade as needed, and recyclable for new battery construction.
Balancing Electric Vehicle Use with Grid Capacity
The need for new electric vehicle technology does not only lie within vehicle and battery design. Industry experts have forewarned that maintaining grid reliability will be one of the main obstacles to overcome, as an increase in the number of electric cars will place tremendous new loads on the grid. After all, charging an electric car with a home station amounts to nearly one to two households worth of load. And with states like California and Texas seeing their own grid pitfalls in recent years, these sentiments remain noteworthy.
Innovators have heard these apprehensions and are looking toward software as a possible solution while grid infrastructure remains underway. In particular, one startup offers emerging software poised to connect electric vehicles directly to electrical grids. Using cloud-based software, the system uses utility data from electric cars to anticipate patterns. These include when a driver will need to charge their vehicle, the number of electric vehicles in a particular area, and transmission line capacity limits.
While the future of electric vehicles is deemed a necessity, continual electric vehicle innovation is a must in order to maintain and ultimately reach climate change goals. A number of new processes, products, and software have moved the industry forward, and it’s likely this trend will only continue as demand climbs.