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The next lithium breakthrough?

An Argonne researcher testing the lithium potential

In the next decade or so many battery researchers believe that new lithium batteries, potentially offering 500+ mile plug-in vehicles, are inevitable. Labeled lithium-air, such batteries offer up to ten times the storage as today’s lithium batteries – easily providing as much energy as a gasoline tank today, while also providing easy and quick refueling.

Unfortunately, even after overcoming the breakthroughs needed to achieve this battery technology, many more years will be required to transition this battery from small electronics into automobiles.

In the interim, battery powered vehicles will be dependent upon lithium-ion technologies, and while chemistries may vary, the costs and potential of today’s lithium-ion technologies are relatively well known. Battery engineers at Argonne Laboratory, for instance, have been testing lithium-ion batteries for decades as manufacturers around the world have perfected scalability, resulting in cheap and extremely powerful laptops and cell phones throughout the world.

Based upon these decades of experience, analysts today assume that scale and manufacturing improvements will result in huge price declines for the battery packs in battery-powered vehicles – as much as 65 percent or more. Nevertheless, according to the same experts and consumer surveys, eventually commodity pricing on battery materials makes lithium-ion battery packs unable to scale to a point that can compete with conventional vehicles for most consumers.

Consequently, by 2020, most analysts believe that pure EVs will account for between 1 and 10 percent of vehicles sales. Plug-in hybrids and conventional hybrids, however, could bring the total battery-powered – even if just partially – fleet up to a share of 20 percent or more.

While 20 percent battery-powered by 2020 is exciting, such an adoption rate ensures that petroleum dependence will be around for a very long time. For instance, even if every auto produced today were a pure EV, it would still take up to 2 decades to replace our current 200,000,000+ (a very low ball estimate) fleet of gas guzzlers with 10,000,000 new EVs per year. Realistically, however, such a replacement is decades away, which means the legacy of gas-guzzling will be around for many more decades.

None of this is an argument against plug-in vehicles.

Nevertheless, if foreign oil dependence is a serious issue facing America and its future, then it must be accepted that plug-in vehicles have serious limitations, particularly in the next few decades, to resolve this problem. Obviously, plug ins are an important and an increasingly significant piece of the solution, but still just a piece. As a result, one must eventually ask, can America thrive under another 3, 4 or even 5 more decades of significant foreign oil dependence?

Is America’s goal plug-in electric vehicles or clean, entirely domestic energy?

Can any goal be achieved if there is never a deadline for its achievement?

One day all vehicles will be electric, whether that is because of new batteries, dynamic charging, battery swapping, cheap hydrogen, etc. or some combination of all of the above is and will be unknown for some time. More important, however, that future might require 40 or 50 years to achieve its full potential, which brings up the most critical question of all: Does America have another 40 or 50 years to achieve foreign oil independence?

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