Despite billions of dollars in private investments and public subsidies, lithium-ion battery technology has progressed at a snail's pace for years and battery developers have recently started to emphasize the importance of baby steps. For the first time in memory, anti-hype is becoming a dominant theme in stories about lithium-ion batteries.
Examples from this month include:
- An interview with Wards Auto where the business manager of the DOE's Kentucky-Argonne Battery Manufacturing Research and Development Center explained that it takes about ten years to put a battery innovation into production and all of today's EVs are powered by technologies that were developed at least a decade ago.
- An article from National Defense which predicts that lithium-ion battery research will soon hit a brick wall because batteries can only be as small and lightweight as their materials allow and immutable laws of physics and chemistry limit the number of electrons that can be stored in a given mass of battery material.
- An article in Nature that discussed ways nanotechnology can improve battery performance by increasing surface area, but took pains to explain that nano-materials must be produced in carefully controlled environments and the high cost of manufacturing nano-materials usually outweighs the benefits derived from using them.
- An article in Design News that focused on the harsh reality that battery development is hard, slow work because batteries require a wide variety of costly materials to work together as a system; there are limitless ways that things can go wrong; and throwing loads of money at research can't make progress happen overnight.
- An article in Waste Management World that explains the complex technical and economic challenges that must be overcome before lithium-ion battery recycling can progress beyond a few pilot plants and become a cost-effective industrial reality, as opposed to a hopium-laced talking point.
- An article in the MIT Technology Review that reads like a premature obituary as it discusses the triumphs and tragedies at A123 Systems (AONE) and their ongoing search for strategic alternatives.
My personal favorite is a strategy memo from the National Alliance for Advanced Technology Batteries that focuses on the problems at A123 Systems and the failures of Ener1 (NASDAQ:HEV) and International Battery. It's classic spin control that ultimately blames the debacle on government policy. Since the irony is so rich, I'll annotate the last three paragraphs by highlighting text that I find particularly entertaining in bold type and adding some observations [in brackets].
"If criticism intensifies, which is likely, it will be important to communicate an important point: Government funding of new energy technologies is meant to support those technologies, not the companies that develop them [or the investors who bought the hype that's part and parcel of government support]. The failures of Ener1 and International Battery, and the troubles of A123 Systems, are business failures, not technology failures. Companies come and go. Corporate assets get bought, sold and reorganized [while investors lose their shirts]. None of that should matter to taxpayers. What should matter is whether the technologies that A123 and Ener1 owned at the time they received their grants has been advanced and pushed closer to commercialization [while politicians promised cost-effective products]. Indications in both cases are that they have been [but unsubsidized demand hasn't materialized].
If the FOA-26 program can be criticized for anything it is that the program focused on funding immediate deployment of advanced automotive battery technology rather than its longer term development. Many pointed that out at the time [and we were lambasted as neo-luddites]. The [entirely predictable] problems at A123 Systems and the failures of Ener1 and International Battery are powerful testimony to the fact that the market for that technology in 2009 was critically immature [just like the underlying technology]. A better use of the funds would clearly have been investing them in the development of new, next-generation battery technologies that could facilitate the development of a market for advanced automotive batteries in the future rather than cater to one that did not fully exist.
In fairness to the Department of Energy, the emphasis on immediate deployment and “getting shovels in the ground” was a political directive motivated by a critical economic crisis, not a considered policy decision. As a consequence, DOE funding of advanced battery technology over the past three years has not been as efficient as it might have been. But that is not to say that it has been a failure. Steady progress on increasing energy density, decreasing battery cost and improving battery system management continues to be made [at a snail's pace]. The market we hoped for in 2009 is not here yet and some of the original players in the market may not make it to the finish. But that market is substantially closer than it was three years ago, and by that fact the success or failure of the FOA-26 program is more properly judged."
The core message of this new anti-hype campaign is clear. The promised improvements in lithium-ion battery technology have not materialized and they're not likely to evolve from existing technology and architecture. We may see a doubling of energy density over the next decade, but the six- to seven-fold gains that Energy Secretary Chu has called for are not possible with current technology. The dream of quantum leaps in performance accompanied by precipitous cost reductions is not in the cards, or for that matter on the horizon. Breathless promises of cost-effective electric cars that will clear the air and deliver us from the tyranny of oil dictators are snake oil cures that will enrich the hucksters for a time, but end in tar, feathers and a ride out of town on a rail.
Battery mythology developed for the sole purpose of supporting electric car mythology. Battery developers tried mightily and failed. Now battery developers are seeking shelter from the backlash that inevitably comes back to haunt companies and industries that promise more than they can deliver. The next dominoes are companies like Tesla Motors (NASDAQ:TSLA) that can't possibly build cost-effective electric vehicles without better and cheaper batteries. Tesla may survive for a time by making toys for the ideologically committed and mathematically challenged rich, but the congenital birth defect that's doomed every generation of electric cars to the scrap heap remains.
The electric car industry can't survive without a thriving and profitable battery industry that can make products that meet or exceed expectations. The battery industry is on record saying they can't meet the ambitious goals they embraced in the recent past. Things might change in my lifetime, but the change is not going to happen in the next decade. Meanwhile the real auto industry is digging into its toolbox and rapidly implementing technologies that weren't cost-effective in another economic era but are today.