Tesla CTO: Li-Ion Advancements Will Lead To Electric Car Domination

Are you one of those who are looking forward to battery chemistry “beyond lithium ion” before EVs can seriously challenge gasoline-powered counterparts?

That won’t quite be needed, said Tesla Motors’ JB Straubel, rather it’s inevitable battery electric vehicles (BEVs) will soon be cheaper to own than and this will lead to their market domination.

It will take advances in battery development sure enough, but the company’s chief technical officer and co-founder is only talking about one general battery type: lithium-ion.

This revelation came as Straubel addressed attendees last week during the opening ceremony for Intersolar North America’s annual conference. He explained that battery advancements are going to lead to two major changes: they will make battery electric vehicles (BEVs) more affordable to drive than gasoline cars, and they will support the shift to renewable energy sources.

As part of the “High Energy Lithium-Ion Batteries” (HE-Lion) project, BASF is conducting research into a new generation of lithium-ion batteries. The aim is to significantly increase the batteries’ energy density to specifically extend their use in electrically powered vehicles as well as in computers and cell phones. Photo courtesy of BASF.

As part of the “High Energy Lithium-Ion Batteries” (HE-Lion) project, BASF is conducting research into a new generation of lithium-ion batteries. The aim is to significantly increase the batteries’ energy density to specifically extend their use in electrically powered vehicles as well as in computers and cell phones. Photo courtesy of BASF.

The shift to BEVs will involve more powerful packs with higher energy densities and finding cheaper manufacturing solutions – which are occurring at an exponential pace, according to Straubel. They are a key ingredient behind the growing success of BEVs.

“It’s soon going to be cheaper to drive a car on electricity — a pure EV on electricity — than it is to drive a gasoline car,” Straubel said. “And as soon as we see that kind of shift in the actual cost of operation in a car that you can use for your daily driver, you know, from all manufacturers I believe we’re going to see electric vehicles come to dominate the whole transportation fleet.”

“Lead acid was basically the status quo for batteries for 100 years,” Straubel told conference attendees. “Going from nickel metal hydride and lead acid to lithium-ion, suddenly we could jump almost 100 percent in improvement in energy density.

“And this was the turning point that really created a new market for electric vehicles.”

One of the significant advantages of the lithium-ion battery, said Straubel, was it allowed carmakers to build a car with acceleration and handling that was comparable to a conventional gasoline-powered car.

“Suddenly an electric vehicle wasn’t a golf cart. It was something that was fun to drive,” he said. “It could handle because the battery pack didn’t weigh 1,500 pounds. It created a vehicle that sort of surprised the automotive industry and I think launched a huge amount of other interesting and great electric vehicle programs all around the world.”

As more powerful lithium-ion batteries are developed for BEVs at lower costs, these same gains translate into better power storage in the grid.

Improvements in lithium-ion batteries “also helps enable the synergy between photovoltaics, or wind, or renewables in general, and cars,” Straubel explained. “Because our fundamental goal is how do we get sustainability into transportation.

“We don’t want to just make cars electric. We need to link electric cars all the way back to where the energy comes from. It has to be renewable energy to really make the difference that we want to do.”

SEE ALSO: Why Big Oil Is Worried About EV Batteries and Tesla

By connecting BEVs with renewable energy, Straubel said lithium-ion batteries become a vital solution in the equation of lowering carbon emissions.

“There’s going to be much faster growth of grid energy storage than I think most people expected. You suddenly get to have energy that’s 100 percent firm and buffered from photovoltaics that’s cheaper than fossil energy. And we’re within sort of grasping distance of that goal, which is very, very exciting.

“Because once we get to that, and there really is no going back, it will make sense to do this economically without any environmental consideration whatsoever. So that’s the amazing tipping point that’s going to happen within I’m quite certain the next 10 years.”