Will There Be Enough Batteries For Tomorrow's Cars?

Lithium Ion Battery

The age of  hybrid and electric automobiles is truly upon us, with more than 100,000 such cars added to American roads just last year. In 2013, worldwide capacity for automotive lithium-ion batteries stood at 4,400 megawatt-hours. By 2020, production could increase by more than ten times that amount to over 49,000 megawatt-hours,  according to a report from Navigant Research.

Says David Alexander, senior research analyst at Navigant:

“Li-ion technology continues to improve, as increased energy densities translate into smaller and lighter battery packs with more power. At the same time, leading battery cell manufacturers have built new factories utilizing the latest production techniques, including greater automation and faster throughput. This will lead to a reduction in the cost per kilowatt-hour (kWh) over the next few years, provided that volumes continue to increase.”

Those rosy predictions aside, demand for electric cars is exploding and the batteries they require are typically bigger and more powerful – up to 80 kWh – than those found in plug-in hybrids, where 4 to 16 kWh batteries are the norm. Will there be enough batteries for everybody? And who will produce them?

Once Tesla’s gigafactory gets up and running, it should be able to manufacture a half million units a year – enough for about 50% of the anticipated worldwide demand in 2020. With the value of the total battery market approaching $25 billion annually by then, plenty of other companies will be vying for that business as well, which means supply should be more than adequate for industry needs in the near term.

But that leaves two questions unanswered. What about technological change in battery technology? And how does the world recycle all those lithium-ion batteries?

One answer may be the cotton battery, which is more environmentally friendly, charges 20 times faster and runs cooler than lithium-ion batteries. Plenty of other research programs around the world are going flat out to develop new battery technology as well. Will the Tesla gigafactory be able to keep pace with changes in the field?  Or will it wind up building batteries that nobody wants?

No one knows the answers at this time. But with $25 billion a year at stake, we can be sure that the pursuit of that market will be intensely competitive. Check back with me in 5 years. Chances are the solutions of the future haven’t even been thought of yet.

Steve Hanley

Closely following the transition from internal combustion to electricity. Whether it's cars, trucks, ships, or airplanes, sustainability is the key. Please follow me on Google + and Twitter.