The race for the perfect battery

Cheap electric cars are almost here—if these claims are true

The race for the perfect batteryImagine your daily commute in the age of the electric car: on Monday, you charge your car in minutes by plugging it into your garage outlet. The total cost comes to about $8. The charge lasts the whole week, and still handles a 200-km drive to the cottage on the weekend. You’ve long forgotten about the frustration of soaring gas prices, and the kicker is, your car was the one of the cheapest on the market.

That’s the promise, at least, being held out by a new array of super-batteries for cars. Thanks to a sudden surge in research funds—including US$2.4 billion in stimulus grants for the electric vehicle industry just announced by U.S. President Barack Obama, and a $16.7-million investment in battery research announced by Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty—new developments are happening at a heady pace. This has lead to a spate of amazing new battery claims from a handful of bleeding-edge start-ups. But are they credible? Venture capitalists familiar with the field say a little skepticism may be wise.

Some of the claims are extraordinary. There’s the “UltraBattery,” which Australian company CSIRO says integrates a super-capacitor with a lead-acid battery and costs 70 per cent less than current hybrid battery systems. There’s Ontario-based Next Alternative’s CNT Battery technology, which the company says can power a car for up to 660 km per charge—six times as far as the average electric vehicle on offer now. Then there’s the granddaddy of the newcomers: a ceramic ultra-capacitor recently announced by EEStor, an eight-year-old company based in Cedar Park, Texas (which has an exclusive contract with Toronto-based Zenn Motors to supply mid-sized passenger cars). The device has no hazardous materials, and EEStor says it holds several times the energy of lithium-ion batteries (which are used to power hybrid cars right now), while keeping its charge for months.

All of these technologies sound revolutionary, but there’s one problem: none of them have been proven to be commercially viable yet. “Most of the claims that are pushing the edge of reality are probably not true,” says Tim Woodward, an investor at Nth power, a venture capital firm based in San Francisco. “There’s a long history of battery engineers being notorious for embellishing the performance.” Woodward says that the majority of data provided by battery start-ups is conducted under optimal conditions making it difficult to tell fact from fiction. Firms skew results for charge time, cycle life or range—and often omit safety hazards incurred by the volatile chemical ingredients.

For example, many companies claim their battery will charge in minutes. Which may be true—technically. But to do that, a typical car would need a power supply able to provide 500 kilowatt hours, far beyond the capacity of a regular electrical outlet. “You can’t find that kind of power anywhere,” explains Jeff Dahn, a leading Canadian lithium battery researcher out of Dalhousie University. “Being able to charge rapidly is problematic for battery-based vehicles.”

And while many start-ups dream of striking it rich with a technological breakthrough, experts warn that some of those companies may be a bit naive about how the industry works. Car manufacturers will almost always purchase only from established partners, and several co-operative agreements are already in place between car companies and battery technology suppliers, such as those between Toyota and Panasonic, Volkswagen and Sanyo, and Bosch and Samsung.

On top of that is the cost factor. Even if a claim is true, if it costs $50,000 per battery to manufacture them, they’re a non-starter. “You have to look at who the customers are—the auto companies—who are very, very good at driving costs down and forcing their suppliers to take a deal with very, very low margins,” says David Berkowitz, a partner at Vancouver venture capital firm Ventures West Management. “To me, that’s what the game is,” he says. “It’s not about having a marginally better battery, it’s more about who will have the cheapest product.”

A report conducted by the Boston Consulting Group (BCG), a global management consulting firm, also pointed to cost as the deciding factor, and, in fact, a potential Achilles heel for the whole electric car industry. It concluded that the costs of creating an automotive market dominated by electric and hybrid cars are “prohibitively high, at least in the foreseeable future.”

The authors admit the playing field could change if there are true breakthroughs affecting the cost and safety of batteries—and indeed such a breakthrough may take place. But a more realistic scenario is one that sees government subsidies slowly pushing down costs. Only then will electric cars be an econom­ically attractive option for consumers.

“The hybrid is a nice technology for the interim,” says Dahn, who believes that the rising costs of gas will slowly encourage a shift to electric cars. But, “if you think you’re going to be charging electrified cars in a few minutes just like a gas tank—I think that’s a pipe dream.”


The race for the perfect battery

  1. If the Eestor technology is real, charging in 5 minutes doesn't have to be a “pipe dream.” Even charging from home; this should be quite possible. All you need is a charging station at home equip with the same Eestor ultra-capacitor/battery technology. This charging station has all day to capture the power from the grid via a 110v/220v outlet. And when the car is in the garage charging, it's getting the power stored in the charging station, not directly from the grid.

  2. 5 minute charging probably won't happen at home. Leave the high-voltage high-speed charging for a dedicated filing station. Charge up your EV overnight at home and use the fast-charge station on the highway if you need the extra range.

  3. Ms. Findlay, did a little deeper and you'll find that EEStor claims have, in fact, been verified by third party testers, with Zenn increasing its investment in EEStor on the basis of those results. Agreed, until a final product is presented to Zenn, there will be continue to be some doubt.

  4. I agree with Clint and this setup with Eestor has a lifespan that will last for ages since it has no hazardous chemicals that go through a denaturation process as the other batterys has to be renewed costing large sums many times during the cars years on the road.

  5. Looking carefully, one can see that Eestor does not fit the mold of the typical advanced battery hysteria. In fact, the only information they have propagated is what they are obliged to release in order to protect their technology from the sharks. That in itself, aside from the third party verification, is indeed noteworthy.

    • EEStor did not have "3rd Party verification" of thier battery. They had a an outside chemist come in an agree they had tested capacitance corrrectly, but nothing else. Not energy, not even a whole battery.

  6. What I find interesting is the outright anger towards EESTOR expressed in other forums. My gosh, if it works, it works. If not, keep looking. Why all the angst?

    • Probably because there are a few people with a lot of money invested, looking to make a killing, there are "Subject Matter Experts" who claim the science doesn't work, you have "dreamers" who insist the SME's negative views are hubris, and some in the middle that just enjoy a good fight.

  7. "This charging station has all day to capture the power from the grid via a 110v/220v outlet." This is true.
    " And when the car is in the garage charging, it's getting the power stored in the charging station, not directly from the grid."
    Also true BUT from basic physics to charge from the charging station is only 33% efficient. There is loss due to heating and electromagnetic radiation. The better solution, ala Better Place, is to swap the charging unit with the car's unit. This is 100% efficient (there are, of course, losses in the slow charging of the charging unit).

    • There is no limitation to the efficiency of transferring the energy from the charging station to the car – this is not the classic charge distribution between two capacitors, which by the way ia 50% efficient, not 33%.

      This may not be a good way to design the system but the efficiency you comment on is not the problem.


  8. For the sake of argument, let say we just found a 'game changing' battery technology. One that would let millions tether their car to the grid in an affordable manner. So that means we can now fuel our cars with electricity instead of dirty hydrocarbons.

    So where do we get the juice?

    The vast majority of electricity is generated by coal…a far dirtier source in terms of CO2 emissions. The U.S. alone gets roughly half it electricity from coal fired plants.

    And what out the infrastructure? Our grid is both antiquated and analog; not the best combination to accomodate millions of new electric cars.

    It's not just the lack of a complete battery that will slow down the adoption rates of hybrids and electric vehicles. It's also the way we make our juice and how we distribute.

    Hmmm…maybe that's way we now have an administration that keeps talking about a smart grid and its implications?

    • What you say is true. However, what you have not considered is the fact that electric vehicles are fully four times (Europe) to eight times (USA) as efficient as internal combustion engined vehicles.

      As for the ability for the grid to cope with the extra demand imposed by charging electric vehicles, bear in mind most recharging would be done at home during the night when national demand is only a fraction of peak daytime demand. Also most grids rely on electric generation by processes incompatible with rapid, large swings in output. Therefore a lot of energy generated by power stations at night is simply dumped due to the need to keep a bare minimum of generators 'ticking over' so that they can supply a sudden unexpected spike in demand.

      It has also been calculated that if all the electricity consumed in refining crude oil used for internal combustion engined vehicles was used directly to drive alternative electric vehicles instead, we would not need to bother extracting the crude oil in the first place. MW

  9. EEStor might be true but it is likely not to come true before Zenn gone bankrupt. EEstor is all smoke and mirror. It cannot even provide a small prototype. Keep breaking their promise on delivery. They have a third party verification on permittivity. This is just a characteristic of the material they are cooking up. It is far from a ultra capcitor. They might end up with a wonderful material looking for a suitable application and battery it is not. Zenn is a bit of a scam.
    When it is too good to be true, you know.

  10. The argument about electrical energy coming from coal is tiresome. Unless this country is completely stupid we are switching to solar energy, which is a billion dollar business now and growing.

    There is no law of physics that prevents the storage of a large amount of energy in a small container. That is exactly what your gas tank does. When people search for other ways to do it, they will find them.

    It really doesn't matter whether Eestor or the other companies mentioned in this article are telling the truth. It is a big planet and people all over the world are working on the problem. If history is a guide, someone will solve the problem.

    If someone in 1980 had said that the internet would completely dominate the exchange of information everywhere in the world within twenty years, he would have been considered more deluded that the believers in Eestor. Technological change happens much more rapidly than most people can imagine. Electric cars are a sure thing. The real question is what other society changing developments will come in the next decades. Technology has outrun the imagination of science fiction writers.

  11. You people better believe EESTOR is real. Like the the writer before, Technology innovation can change our lives very quickly. Look at the combustion engine, hydraulics, the internet! EESTOR is real and it is comming. They may delay once again but they are almost there. The Permitivity has been proven and the science has been proven. Now they are building the capacitor as we speek. The applications for the EESTOR capacitor will be world changing from Load leveling for all forms of power generation. Power tools expanding in every form to power bikes, cars, busses, trains, trucks, computers. They should completely replace the battery at the counter – no more chemical disposal mess. All this and the same cost as lead acid batteries with absolutely no hazardous materials. The load leveling alone will help with the extra electricity needed to charge the ever expanding electric car market. EESTOR is real and it will change the world, my only concern is who will get in their way to try and stop them to protect their interests? You can guess who will try and bury this technology.

  12. It is no so relevant which energy storage technology will win. The attributes of the long term winning energy storage technology will be 1. Very low cost $100 to $200 per kilo-watt-hour and 2. Fast recharge in less than 7 minutes. High power recharge stations are already around for industrial applications and are not difficult to design build or expensive. Far lower in cost than battery swapping will be. For investors if the energy technology doesn't meet the above 2 conditions then the investment is for a niche market and not likely a long term leader. The winner will not be decided probably for 5 years as there are a number of competing technologies under development.

  13. EEStor don't have any miracle dielectric – it's barium titanate, used for decades in ceramic capacitors. Interestingly a commercial ceramic cap of say 50V and 1 microfarad also using barium titanate stores 1.25 millijoules of energy, and occupies maybe 10 cubic millimetres of volume. Now to store 42 kW hours or 150 megajoules using these devices would need about 120 billion of them and a volume of 1200 cubic metres, weighing maybe 6000 tons. Now I'll grant that modern techniques allow more miniaturisation than decades ago – but 10 thousand or more times, without a major technological change? Where am I going wrong?

    • The energy of the capacitor goes up with the square of the voltage (E = 1/2 * C* V^2).

      Their capacitor has a working voltage of 3500V (not 50v) which is where they get their claim of 52 kWh (not 42 kWh). I'm not going to work through the math here but they claim they can get their EESU down to about 1 cubic foot. Check out their patent. In THEORY, their math checks out…in theory.

      • That is exactly the crux of the matter. Energy goes up as the square of the voltage ONLY in linear dielectrics, and the CMBT dielectric is NOT linear. There are dozens of manufacturers of the product, they all admit to the falling off of permitivvity with field. THE SCIENCE OF EESTOR HAS NOT BEEN PROVEN TO A THIRD PARTY, THATS WHAT ALL THE DISCUSSION IS ABOUT.

  14. Rapid discharging ultracapacitors are not a pipe dream. Hence if a rapid charging battery is available, an infrastructure capable of charging it will be developed. Also, what Stephanie's article fails to comment on is the need to fully charge a vehicle for 200 km. The majority of commuters travel to work and back, maybe to the store on the way home. Hence charging over a longer period (3 hours for 230 V outlet, ~ 8 for a 120 V outlet) would be sufficient to displace the bulk of fossil fuel consumption attributed to automobiles. Perhaps a little less bias or a little more homework is in order.

  15. In 1998, I attended a demonstration by Hydro-Quebec of a rapid battery charging system that would have recharged the lead-acid batteries of the electric vehicles of the day by 75% in about five minutes – Hydro-Quebec was ready to roll these charging stations out across the province at provincial rest stops and gas stations, if Quebec would promote electric cars. I think the only station ever built was the one in Quebec City that recharges the electric buses used in Old Quebec.

  16. Ballasting the vagarities of Solar and Wind power by a huge number of car batteries charging at any given time is a good thing, not a bad thing! Western Canada and Northern Canada, with even denser, colder air-flows have tremendous Wind potential! Obama must come clean and allow private, Canadian, and world-wide University labs explore building super-batteries with Depleted Uranium, very dense, and a likely candidate for a real solution? (China, no respecter of American patent or any other laws will do so!) but locked away in "Military" secrecy – perhaps by American oil company lobbies, they make most important decisions for Obama as it is! ( but have no clout in Asia!) The EV-1 batteries were admittedly swept away by these very bandits who bought the patent rights and promptly buried the battery technology in red tape defended by American Shysters and backed by American Military force if need be! Goddammit!, Boy! You Unnerstand? See the movie for free on the web! "Who Killed The Electric Car"! its everywhere! Keeping the adversaries to Electric cars in mind, and realizing that power for the cars can come best from green sources like Solar and Wind, Tidal and Geo-thermal, it seems a small mystery as to why we don't drive them today! Three moving part motors! No transmissions needed! ( American suppliers up in arms!) Carbon fiber bodies (Oops! stepped on U.S. steel's toes, watch your back!) No planned obsolescence needed(Oops GM, Chrysler, and Ford, up in arms) No annual model changes, bodies, motors last a lifetime (Unions about to have fits here) Batteries totally recyclable (Miners and raw materials boys out to get you!) and safer than ever now that oil has priced the big rigs off the highways! What a challenge to the "Status Quo"! The next decade or so should prove interesting, especially for OPEC and the Saudis! Do we really need them anymore?

    • I agree that much has been covered up and smothered. However…. In about 1982 I called a battery research firm that had some nice government funding. I wanted to build an electric car, so I asked them what their research was finding and what I might expect in the future. They were experimenting with lead wire for more plate surface. I was told that 'this is about as good as batteries will ever be'. Well, here we are with several generations of new batteries, and, per mile, lithium is so much cheaper than lead/acid that I would only use lead/acid on a test platform to test a drive system. Reasonably cheap low voltage AC drive systems are on the shelf, lithium is on the shelf and even if Eestor doesn't happen, no one can stop any of us from building vehicles that are at least feasible, even if they aren't dirt cheap. I believe that there are now so many different research avenues being actively funded that we will most likely see at least a half dozen feasible products in the next decade. Until Eestor proves that they cannot deliver, my money is on Zenn. If they don't deliver, someone else will.

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