Automakers Worldwide Compete to Create Cheap, Efficient Car Batteries

Photo: Tesla.com

By Natasha Lasky, ODP Staff Writer

The car battery was once thought to be one of the least interesting parts of an automobile, technically speaking. But things are changing now that the public has begun prioritizing sustainable transportation and lowering emissions. Wood Mackenzie, an energy research and consulting firm, suggests that electric vehicles will make up 18 percent of new car sales by 2030, which will increase the demand for batteries — and the materials to make themBecause of this, auto companies from General Motors to Tesla are rushing to create a battery that will generate the most energy in the smallest, cheapest, and most lightweight package. Batteries and other storage technologies are the key to curbing emissions from fossil fuels. 

Why this Matters:  Right now, electric car batteries are still inefficient and expensive. Electric batteries for a mid-sized car cost about $15,000, almost double the price they need to be for electric cars to be widely bought and driven. Moreover, about 10 percent of the materials that go into making a battery are wasted because of inefficient production methods. Because of this, the global interest in battery technology could be tremendously helpful — as the New York Times put it, “it puts capitalism to work on solving a global problem.” But no one should underestimate the challenge. According to Elon Musk, Tesla’s chief executive, mass-producing batteries is “The hardest thing in the world.”

Batteries Charge the Global Economy 

“Battery innovations are not overnight,” Venkat Srinivasan, director of the Argonne National Laboratory’s Collaborative Center for Energy Storage Science, told the New York Times. “It can take you many years. All sorts of things can happen.” Most companies that are attracting the attention of investors don’t actually have a feasible solution yet. These investors could be betting on the wrong technology.  Musk further explains, “Prototypes are easy. Scaling production is very hard.”

The top battery manufacturers are currently dominated by China, Japan, and South Korea, with companies like Panasonic, LG Chem, BYD China, and SK Innovation. Because of this, demand for batteries could empower China, which refines most of the metals used in batteries and produces more than 70 percent of all battery cells. The Chinese government developed Contemporary Amperex Technology, a partially state-owned battery production company, allowing it to become one of the worlds’ biggest battery suppliers

But companies from the EU and the US are also trying to compete in this market. The EU is taking a cue from China by subsidizing electric vehicle producers with government funds out of a desire to avoid dependence on Asian suppliers. The EU designated 2.9 billion euro for battery manufacturing and research last month. While the US hasn’t yet designed federal incentives for electric car and battery production, President Biden’s embrace of electric cars may help fuel innovation. GM is building a battery factory in Ohio with LG, and companies like QuantumScape and Tesla have been working to lower the cost of batteries, increase their efficiency, and create batteries that do not rely on expensive materials like lithium, cobalt, and nickel. 

“Twenty years ago, nobody cared much about batteries,” Jakub Reiter, head of science at InoBat, told the New York Times. Now, “it’s a big fight.”

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