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The Future of Transport and Lithium-Ion Batteries

Updated: Jan 13, 2021

Victor Luca, 29-Oct-19

With the transport sector accounting for about 15% of global green-house gas emissions, it seems clear to me that the future of transport will be the battery electric vehicle (BEV) and perhaps eventually hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles also. One day we may look upon the ICE as we now look upon the old practice of bloodletting as a means of curing disease. Quaint but ridiculous! BEVs are just better technology.

In fact, BEVs have been around since at least as long as ICE vehicles. One of the first mass-produced BEVs was the Baker Electric (1899-1915). The first Baker Electric could travel at speeds of up to 40 km/h and had a range of about 80 km. The Baker Electric performance was easily competitive with the ICE vehicles of the era. Alkaline batteries were used in the Baker Electric.

An entire catalogue of 80 different electric vehicle makes and models dating from around 1907 can be found at this address:

Today, electric motors are improving, and battery performance is increasing by about 6% per annum and costs are dropping. Battery capacity improvement of around 6% per annum is not exactly Moore’s Law where the number of transistors on an integrated circuit doubles every two years. Rather, Li-ion battery development is a case of steady progress with a 6% annual capacity increase translating to a doubling of performance about every 10 years. Car companies the world over are scrambling to make the transition from ICE vehicles to BEVs. The UK government is aiming for all new cars and vans to be BEVs by 2040. We are starting to see these low emissions vehicles in numbers on our roads now. Of course life-cycle emissions depend on many factors including how the electricity used is generated. In New Zealand we are fortunate to have a relatively clean grid (85% hydro), so the use of BEVs can have a significant impact on emissions.

The performance of modern Li-ion batteries drops off slowly with time and after about 8-10 years they become unviable and need to be replaced. The question of what to do with all the spent batteries is not minor and recycling is one of the options. It was being discussed on talk-back radio this morning and a number of callers clearly have little understanding of the tech. Most callers did however understand that since BEV growth is becoming exponential, we are going to see a lot of dead Li-ion batteries generated, just as waste tire piles grow.

During the period 1995-2004 I conducted a significant amount of research on the development of novel electrode materials for Li-ion batteries. My goal was to replace the graphite anode with non-combustible and more efficient materials. That chemistry has now been commercialized by Toshiba. I write to point out that it is in theory relatively straight-forward to recycle Li-ion batteries using a variety of hydrometallurgical processes.

The current world recycling rate for lithium-ion batteries is around 50%. Last year, it has been reported that China recycled 69% of all stock available for recycling worldwide. This recycling rate is likely to increase with companies such as Fortum, a Nordic clean energy company with which I have had dealings, is developing technology that makes over 80% of electric vehicle batteries recyclable, returning nickel, cobalt and lithium back into circulation with consequent reduction in mining intensity. Many other companies are also working in the recycling space and I am confident that with a little more R & D recovery rates can improve further. Isn’t this better than burning petrol, producing carbon dioxide and other gases that contaminate our air and cause the planet to warm?

Once again, sometimes it is necessary to go backward a little in order to go forward.

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