A new battery that promises to solve two of the biggest grumbles about electric cars - high prices and low driving ranges - is headed for shop floors in just over a year.
The lithium battery, which experts say could be a game-changing “killer app” for the global car market, can triple the driving range of an electric vehicle and significantly lower its costs, say the US scientists who developed it.
It can also double the running life of a smartphone or a laptop, said Dr Qichao Hu, who developed the device with his former professor, Donald Sadoway, a prominent battery expert at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
But its impact on the cost and performance of an electric car could prove transformational, said Prof Sadoway, whose work on other batteries has been backed by Microsoft co-founder, Bill Gates.
“We’ve got to get a car on the showroom floor for $30,000, not $130,000 and the big piece is the battery: it’s too expensive and it runs down too fast,” said Prof Sadoway.
Batteries in existing electric cars can account for as much as 30 per cent of the sticker price. They also need temperature control systems to stop them overheating or catching fire.
The new battery does not need the same systems because it operates safely at a wide range of temperatures, which should shave costs, said Dr Hu, and the battery itself will be about 20 per cent cheaper than existing ones.
Cost, safety and “range anxiety” are not the only problems for plug-in electric cars, which make up less than 1 per cent of new passenger car sales in most countries. Recharging times and access to charging stations are also a concern.
Still, analysts say a battery that can sharply improve price and range could be highly significant.
“That’s game-changing,” said Arndt Ellinghorst, head of global automotive research at ISI Group, an investment research group. “There are a lot of experienced battery makers trying to do exactly that because it’s the killer application.”
Independent experts in the US recently confirmed prototype cells in the battery developed by Dr Hu and Prof Sadoway can store more than twice as much energy as conventional cells.
The main difference between their battery and existing ones is that it has an ultra-thin metal anode with higher energy density than the graphite and silicon anodes in current batteries, and uses safer electrolyte material.
Dr Hu founded a company called SolidEnergy in 2012, just outside Boston, to commercialise the technology and hopes the battery will be in production for consumer electronics in the first half of 2016 and in electric cars by the second half of that year.
The project has backing from Vertex, the venture capital arm of Temasek, Singapore’s state investment group, and Dr Hu said he had preliminary discussions with Apple and Tesla, the electric carmaker, as well as most major Asian battery manufacturers.
Apple declined to comment and Tesla did not respond to requests for comment. To speed up the process of getting the device to market, SolidEnergy only plans to make the core battery materials for larger manufacturers.
Tesla is hoping to bring down battery costs at the “gigafactory” battery plant it is building in Nevada. But most of the cost reductions are expected to come from economies of scale rather than the technological advances promised by batteries such as the one Dr Hu and Prof Sadoway are developing.