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The coming EV batteries will sweep away fossil fuel transport, with or without net zero - 07.03.23

by Ambrose Evans-Pritchard for The Telegraph.

The Argonne National Laboratory in the US has essentially cracked the battery technology for electric vehicles, discovering a way to raise the future driving range of standard EVs to a thousand miles or more. It promises to do so cheaply without exhausting the global supply of critical minerals in the process.

The joint project with the Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT) has achieved a radical jump in the energy density of battery cells. The typical lithium-ion battery used in the car industry today stores about 200 watt-hours per kilo (Wh/kg). Their lab experiment has already reached 675 Wh/kg with a lithium-air variant.

This is a high enough density to power trucks, trains, and arguably mid-haul aircraft, long thought to be beyond the reach of electrification. The team believes it can reach 1,200 Wh/kg. If so, almost all global transport can be decarbonised more easily than we thought, and probably at a negative net cost compared to continuation of the hydrocarbon status quo.

The Argonne Laboratory in Chicago is not alone in pushing the boundaries of energy storage and EV technology. The specialist press reports eye-watering breakthroughs almost every month. America, Europe, China and Japan are all in a feverish global race for battery dominance – or survival – and hedge funds are swarming over the field.

I highlight this paper because US national labs have AAA credibility. The study is peer-reviewed and has just appeared in the research journal Science. Their solid-state battery has achieved the highest energy density yet seen anywhere in the world. And sometimes you have to pick on one to tell a larger story.

The science paper says the process can “theoretically deliver an energy density that is comparable to that of gasoline”, a remarkable thought that slays some stubborn shibboleths. It is not for today, but it is not for the remote future either. It typically takes five or so breakthroughs of this kind in battery technology to reach manufacturing.

Professor Larry Curtiss, the project leader, told me that his battery needs no cobalt. That eliminates reliance on the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), which accounts for 74pc of the world’s production and has become a Chinese economic colony for the extraction of raw materials.

Beijing has already gained a lockhold on the supply chain through ownership or control over three quarters of the DRC’s major cobalt mines. Russia is the world’s third. It is planning to raise that share by tearing up the marine bed off the Pacific coast.

Reports by the United Nations and activist groups leave no doubt that cobalt mining in the DRC is an ecological and human disaster, with some 40,000 children working for a pittance in toxic conditions for small ‘artisanal’ mines. It has become a byword for North-South exploitation.

Needless to say, the horrors of the cobalt supply chain have been seized on by fossil “realists” (i.e. vested interests) and Putin’s cyber-bots to impugn the moral claims of the green energy transition. The Argonne-IIF technology should make it harder to sustain that line of attack.

Prof Curtiss said the current prototype is based on lithium but does not have to be. “The same type of battery could be developed with sodium. It will take more time, but can be done,” he said. Switching to sodium would halve the driving range but it would still be double today’s generation of batteries.

Sodium is ubiquitous. There are deposits in Dorset, Cheshire, or Ulster. The US and Canada have vast salt lakes. Sodium can be produced cheaply from seawater in hot regions via evaporation. There is no supply constraint.

This knocks out another myth: that the EV revolution is impossible on a planetary scale because there either is not enough lithium, or not enough at viable cost under free market conditions in states aligned with the Western democracies. (The copper shortage is more serious, but there may be solutions for that as well using graphene with aluminium).

The International Energy Agency estimates that demand for lithium will rise 20-fold by 2040 if we rely on existing battery technology. The Australians are the world’s biggest producers today. But the greatest long-term deposits are in the Lithium Triangle of Argentina, Bolivia, and Chile, which are in talks to create an OPEC-style lithium cartel. China’s Tianqui owns 22pc of the Chilean group SQM, the world’s second-biggest lithium miner.

A lithium recycling industry will mitigate the problem. In the end, lithium can be extracted from seawater. It is highly diluted at 180 parts per billion but research suggests that it could be isolated for as little as $5 a kilo. If so, the lithium scare is just another of a long list of seemingly insurmountable barriers that fall away with time. The march of clean-tech is littered with such false scares.

For readers with a better grip on chemistry than me, the Argonne-IIF uses a solid electrolyte made from a ceramic polymer based on nanoparticles. This does require expensive materials.

It achieves a reaction of four molecules at room temperature instead of the usual one or two. It is able to extract oxygen from the surrounding air to run the reaction, solving a problem that has held back development for a decade. It can operate over a thousand cycles of charging and discharging. It is safer and less likely to catch fire than today's batteries.

What the Argonne-IIF battery and other global breakthroughs show collectively is that energy science is moving so fast that what seemed impossible five years ago is already a discernible reality, and that we will be looking at a very different technological landscape before the end of this decade.

Germany and Italy last week succeeded in blocking EU’s plans for ban on petrol and diesel sales by 2035. They might just as well bark at the moon or command the waves to recede. Moore’s Law and the learning curve of new technology has already sealed the fate of the combustion engine – with or without net zero.

The legacy companies cannot save their sunk investment in fossil motors – unless the EU retreats into fortress protectionism, which would be economic suicide. To try would be to guarantee the total destruction of Europe’s car industry. The only hope of saving it is to go for broke on electrification before global rivals run away with the prize.

The coming battery technology kills the case for hydrogen in cars, vans, buses, or trucks, and perhaps also for trains and aircraft, whether it is “green” from wind and solar via electrolysis or “blue” from natural gas with carbon capture. The energy loss involved makes no sense. It is much cheaper and more efficient to electrify wherever possible.

Clean hydrogen is too valuable to squander. We need it to replace dirty hydrogen used in industry. We need it for fertilisers, green steel, container shipping, and long-term storage in saline aquifers to back up renewables during a windless Dunkelflaute. We do not need it for road transport.

My advice to corporate bosses and ministers: keep up with the world’s scientific literature, or you will be massacred.

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This article is an extract from The Telegraph’s Economic Intelligence newsletter. Sign up here to get exclusive insight from two of the UK’s leading economic commentators – Ambrose Evans-Pritchard and Jeremy Warner – delivered direct to your inbox every Tuesday.

New electric car batteries could lengthen ranges to a thousand miles or more. Credit: Michaela Handrek-Rehle/Bloomberg.

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