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The Electric Vehicle Industry: The Next Big Challenges

Electric vehicle (EV) ownership has gained popularity as a method of reducing emissions, with EV market share growing at an incredible rate. In the UK alone there are currently over 300,000 electric vehicles on the roads and in 2020 Europe saw an increase of 1,325,000 electric cars and vans up from 550,000 in 2019. This increase in ownership has no doubt been fueled by government incentives such as the pioneering steps the UK Government to reduce emissions by banning internal combustion engine trade by 2030 and the role that major EV companies such as Tesla, NIO and Lucid Motors have played in the development of the EV from the start.

Today, electric vehicles are seen as high-performance alternatives with promises of zero emissions and low running costs. Their sales are increasing due to a combination of political support, improvements in battery technology and costs, and more charging infrastructure. However, they still only account for 3% of global car ownership and there are many hurdles that need to be overcome in order for EV ownership to weigh significantly on the automotive market.

Read on to discover the technological developments that will make owning and using electric vehicles more attractive.

Ways to improve battery technology

Long-lasting, inexpensive and fast-charging batteries are essential to make electric vehicles more attractive. Today’s lithium ion battery has shown promise to meet such demands as the price of a lithium ion battery has fallen by over 80% since 2010 and car batteries will last longer than ever, but that is always not yet what is required as the batteries are too heavy and expensive and take too long to charge.

Solid State Battery: A New Direction

Historically, researchers have spent decades exploring the potential of solid-state lithium-metal batteries as an alternative; These would store more energy in the same volume and charge in a fraction of the time compared to traditional lithium-ion batteries. In fact, researchers at Harvard University have developed a stable all-solid-state lithium-metal battery that they claim can be “discharged at least 10,000 times at high current density.”

This is a significant step forward for the EV industry as it has the potential to extend the lifespan of EVs to that of their combustion engine counterparts (10 to 15 years without needing to replace the battery). The high current density would mean the battery could be fully charged within 20 minutes, making it a much lighter and cheaper alternative to petrol and diesel. However, more research is needed to make this a viable alternative, as the possibility of mass-producing such technologies at a lower cost than traditional batteries remains elusive.

battery recycling

Apart from the development of battery technology, there is also the challenge of ensuring that the electric vehicle has a green footprint at every stage of its life cycle. While conventional batteries are largely recycled, the lithium-ion batteries used in electric vehicles are not. With the EU hoping to have 30 million electric cars on Europe’s roads by 2030 and currently only 5% of lithium-ion batteries are recycled, the question of what will happen to all the dead batteries and an opportunity for a recycling industry arises arises.

Most EV batteries are lithium-ion based and based on a mixture of cobalt, manganese, nickel, graphite and other major components. In addition to complicated recycling methods, the reliance on this composition of lithium-ion batteries has plagued the industry with issues such as overheating, flammability, and poor performance in cold weather, as well as ethical issues related to the supply of cobalt. This undoubtedly hampers the attractiveness of owning electric vehicles over traditional internal combustion engine vehicles.

Luckily, research didn’t stop at developing better batteries, and major EV suppliers like Nissan and Volkswagen have started to do their part by developing methods to recycle their old batteries. Volkswagen, for example, has opened its own recycling plant that is supposed to recycle around 3,600 battery systems every year.

Although the automotive battery recycling process is still in its infancy, research suggests that there are many opportunities for the battery recycling industry including: pyrometallurgy (melting), hydrometallurgy (leaching), and direct recycling (physical processes) to recover materials from used batteries extract . There is still no clear path for recycling lithium-ion batteries as many processes face low-value or contaminated products. Nonetheless, the work continues and we will no doubt see significant innovations in this area in the years to come.

Opportunities for developments in the charging infrastructure

EV charging times and range have improved for the better in recent years, but there are still significant improvements that need to be made to battery charging infrastructure and charging efficiency. It currently takes about thirty-five minutes to charge an EV battery 100 miles and about eight hours to charge from empty to full. Compared to the range and quick refueling of petrol and diesel cars, electric vehicles face stiff competition.

loading lanes

This could be the holy grail of EV charging solutions; Charge while driving, eliminating charging time and limited range issues. While this may seem fanciful, Electric Road Systems (ERS) have been used in both Korea and Sweden, with a national road system planned to be introduced in Sweden by 2033. Not only are ERS beneficial in terms of charging times and range as EVs are feasible with smaller batteries, opening up a huge opportunity to lower manufacturing costs and reduce the size of (hard-to-recycle) batteries. ERS technology is still in its infancy but could offer game-changing solutions to the various challenges associated with EV ownership and use.

Wireless charging

Like street charging, wireless charging offers an opportunity for EV drivers to charge their cars without having to be plugged into an outlet. Being relatively uncomplicated, wireless charging is becoming an increasingly popular solution. The UK government is planning to spend over 40 million in the near future.

Wireless charging is well-positioned to address the problem of EV owners who don’t have off-street parking, and BMW already offers static wireless charging systems that charge parked vehicles. According to Chargemaster chief executive David Martell, wireless charging will likely “appear first in parking garages and then under street parking lots.”

Wireless charging technology will undoubtedly go a long way in solving the problems of charging electric vehicles at home, and the introduction of more wireless charging outside the home is likely to help solve existing infrastructure problems.

The universal charging connector

The world is digitally connected and smartphones have become an indispensable tool in modern society. This has extended to EV charging, as public charging ports are often only accessible via a phone app. However, rather than providing the key to a network of charging ports, this can often be the biggest challenge for an EV owner. I speak from experience when I say there’s nothing more frustrating than arriving at a charging station, only to be thwarted by an app that won’t connect or download when you access the devices (yet another’s ) provider must access.

The inaccessibility of existing charging infrastructure is being addressed in the United States with the invention of the universal charging port – an electric vehicle charger that does not require a phone to access. The Biden administration is currently implementing a $174 billion program to encourage EV adoption, including tax incentives for EV buyers.

Many existing charging ports are hidden behind second floor garages and parking lots. It is possible that increased visibility and accessibility of public charging points will lead to increased adoption of electric vehicles.

Intellectual property in the EV industry

Significant development is clearly required before EVs can provide a substantially equivalent replacement for traditional vehicles, and with that development will come the creation of valuable intellectual property (IP). At Keltie, we specialize in sustainable technologies including green power, electric vehicles, materials and battery technologies. As an EV driver, I look forward to helping EV innovators protect and commercialize their solutions so that EV use and ownership can become the norm, not the exception.

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