In the future, “gigafactories” in the UK might be producing millions of electric vehicle (EV) batteries. Electric vehicles are expected to substitute much of today’s fleet, as the government already has committed to a prohibition on selling the latest petrol and diesel-engined automobiles by 2030.
Nissan has pledged to increase electric vehicle manufacturing at its Sunderland facility in northeast England, while an industrial partner plans to construct an electric battery facility nearby. Meanwhile, Vauxhall owner Stellantis has stated that its Ellesmere Port facility will invest $139 million in producing electric vans and automobiles.
What will the final appearance of all these batteries be? Lithium iron phosphate batteries, which use alternative electrode components, are being studied by scientists at the Pennsylvania State University in the US in an attempt to reduce the cost of lithium-ion batteries. This battery model is far less expensive and safer than the lithium nickel manganese cobalt oxide batteries, and it can power a car for 250 miles on a single charge in as little as 10 minutes.
Concerns about the range that completely charged EVs can cover are also motivating carmakers to create batteries that employ a solid component rather than a liquid to separate the electrodes. These are secure and can power electric vehicles for up to 300 kilometers on a single charge. However, lithium batteries have a flaw. In comparison to most minerals in general use, lithium is a relatively uncommon element on Earth. As the need for batteries grows, the cost of lithium will skyrocket. This has encouraged geologists to look for new lithium sources worldwide, typically at exorbitant prices. Lithium extraction from the salt flats in Chile, for example, uses a lot of water that is in limited supply there. Cobalt is also rare relative to other metals, such as iron, and ores are centered in Africa’s politically volatile Congo region.
One option is to make better use of what we currently have. With over a million electric vehicles sold worldwide in 2017 and the number continuously increasing, experts are researching methods to recycle lithium on a large scale. Some people are wondering if bacteria can help them accomplish this. It will be critical in the future to build batteries that can be easily dismantled so that the metals contained within them may be reused. Lithium is also a highly reactive metal, posing difficulties for those who must work with it.
Alternatives to lithium are also possible. EV makers, for example, are interested in sodium-ion batteries because of their cheaper cost. They function similarly to lithium-ion batteries, with the exception that sodium is heavier and holds less energy. Multivalent batteries, which send more than one electron to the circuit because the ion that flows between electrodes has a higher charge than lithium, are a step further in the future. These batteries pose significant problems for scientists to overcome, but they can provide much more energy storage.
It’s a significant challenge to mass-produce enough electric vehicles at a price that makes them competitive with fossil-fuelled alternatives. Scientists at the forefront of battery development are aiming to tackle this challenge and transform how we travel.