Battery technology has been getting a lot of focus in the last couple of years. After all, you can’t have a decent electric car (or hybrid for that matter) without having the right kind of battery. And, just one more time, battery technology is what prevented the marketing of the electric car after the oil embargo of the seventies, at least as far as the necessary technology goes.
So it isn’t surprising that almost $2B in cash is being invested to start 4 new manufacturing plants in Michigan to make lithium ion batteries. The State of Michigan is giving tax incentives totalling over $500 million. The DOE has put grants and development contracts in the hundreds of millions of dollars in the hands of some of the same companies. So it looks like we have picked the winner, and we are taking steps to make sure that there is capacity available to make the product. Or at least assemble it. Some of the battery supply is supposed to be coming in from Asia. No surprise there.
There are two major issues in any battery. The basic chemistry and materials that go into it, and the manufacturing processes that go into making it. The basic chemistry sets the boundaries for what is possible. The materials side is important in terms of raw materials cost. You don’t want to build something that is dependent on strategic metals. And making sure that the primary materials are readily available. Recent reports indicate that the lithium needed for the emerging battery market is available in the US, but there is even more in South America.
On the manufacturing side, it’s all over the place. Mechatronics everywhere. From manufacture of the primary cell in either a cyclindrical cell or a prismatic shape to the assembly of the final package. Temperature sensors, fans for air cooling, voltage or current sensors for monitoring charge and output, non-conductive housings, high power density connector terminals. It’s pretty busy getting it packaged right.
I was involved in the manufacturing processes for the Optima sprial wound lead acid cell. Great piece of technology. Really difficult to get the mechatronics right. Winding multiple 4 foot long layers of lead mesh, separater membranes and stuff that looks like toothpaste into a perfect roll the size of a can of soda isn’t a process that gets worked out overnight. So there’s probably quite a bit of work to do to get the volume up where it needs to be.
Battery technology, regardless of chemistry, depends on the amount of surface area available. Same issue for fuel cells, or even combustion of gasoline. In a sense, when fuel is atomized, the surface area of the fuel is increased. So it’s not surprising that most of the improvements forecast in battery technology are a result of research in nanoparticles and other unique physical arrangments of the constituent parts.
And unlike the decades that it took to manage lead acid battery recycling, there is already a major effort to manage recycling and disposal of lithium. The DOE is currently providing funding to a private company to expand it’s disposal capability to include lithium technology.