There is no denying that electric vehicles are now a part of modern transportation. It wasn’t long ago that an electric car on the road was somewhat of an anomaly or a curiosity. Now sitting at a red light, you are likely to have an electric city bus, a Tesla and a couple of hybrid vehicles surrounding you. Part of the increased adoption of electric propulsion has come from EV car battery technology breakthroughs. Electric car battery technology has evolved rapidly in the past several years. Let’s discuss advances in EV battery technology, and look at the roadmap for where emerging tech and EV battery power is taking the industry.
Old-School EV Battery Technology
Early EV battery designs were little more than banks of lead-acid batteries, much like what you would find on a golf cart. Lead-acid batteries are relatively cheap and tough, so they work well in a car. There’s a reason why almost every vehicle on the road has a lead-acid battery under the hood for starting — dependability. Many pure electric vehicles even have a 12-volt lead-acid battery as a power source, apart from the main drive battery. The downside is that lead-acid batteries weigh a lot. That’s okay if you only need one, but if you need a whole stack of them, the weight penalty adds up quickly. For example, the 1997 Chevrolet S-10 Electric battery pack weighed 1,400 pounds!
Early fully-electric vehicles, such as the RAV4 EV, and hybrids, such as the Toyota Prius and Ford Escape, used NiMH (nickel–metal hydride) batteries. NiMH can handle a lot of charge/discharge cycles before they start to degrade. They offer excellent power output, but have a tendency to lose charge as time passes when not in use. NiMH batteries also don’t like extreme temperatures. NiMH is still popular for hybrid vehicles, but pure electric vehicles have mostly moved on to newer battery technology.
Current Battery Technology
Today, most electric vehicles use some form of lithium-ion battery for the main drive system. Yes, the same kind of battery found in your laptop or cordless drill can also get you from Point A to Point B. Lithium-ion batteries charge quickly and offer high-energy density, which is important when trying to cram a battery pack into a vehicle. They also weigh a lot less than a comparable lead-acid battery.
Unfortunately, lithium-ion batteries don’t like extreme temperatures. Extreme cold slows down charging time, while extreme heat degrades the battery itself. Vehicles like the Nissan LEAF had dense battery packs with no ability to regulate temperatures, while Tesla vehicles use a liquid temperature-controlled battery pack. By using liquid to cool or warm a battery pack, it can remain at the optimum operating temperature. This is why you might notice an electric vehicle with a radiator in the parking lot, which cools the battery the same way it does an internal combustion engine.
Another problem with lithium-ion batteries is what to do with them once they are no longer able to hold a charge. Recycling is difficult at this time, but not impossible. Materials inside the battery also have a nasty tendency to catch fire when exposed to water, making disassembly a touchy procedure. Traditionally, recycled lead-acid batteries are shredded to separate their components, but lithium-ion batteries require a gentler touch to reclaim their ingredients. One potential recycling method uses a shredder submerged in a special liquid that prevents the possibility of fire.
The Future of Battery Technology
Automakers are busy looking for the right combination of compounds for the next big break in EV batteries. Right now, there are two main contenders to power the next generation of electric vehicles.
Solid State Batteries
Many automakers are working on a new kind of battery, called a solid-state-battery, which doesn’t use any sort of liquid electrolyte. Theoretically, a solid-state battery would have excellent energy density, thus giving better driving range with less space and weight in a vehicle. With a solid-state battery onboard, the electric vehicle range could hit 500+ miles on a single charge, with recharging from home taking as little as 10 minutes.
With that kind of potential, it is no wonder automakers are throwing resources at solid-state battery development. Recently, Hyundai filed a patent (US-20230420764-A1) for a solid-state battery design that applies constant pressure to each battery cell. Volkswagen is also chasing a solid-state battery solution with several partners in the battery technology space. Additionally, Toyota is working on a solid-state battery design with hopes for bringing solid-state EV batteries to their fleet by 2027.
While not exactly the newest EV battery technology around, sodium-ion batteries may have their day soon. Chinese automaker BYD recently broke ground on a sodium-ion battery plant in Xuzhou, China. Sodium-ion batteries are cheaper to manufacture, but less energy dense than lithium-ion batteries. While currently not ideal for long-range cruising, they are perfect for small city vehicles with plenty of access to charging infrastructure. Automaker Stellantis also recently invested in Tiamat, a French company working on building sodium-ion batteries. The case for integrating sodium-ion battery-powered vehicles into the automotive industry will likely depend on the local market where they are driven.
Battery Life Matters
Extending EV battery life is a hot topic among electric vehicle owners and prospective shoppers. Answering “How long do electric car batteries last?” depends on the battery type and how it is charged/discharged. EV battery replacement is possible, but not always a straight-forward process. Changing an EV or hybrid battery requires special training and tools due to the high voltages involved.
Right now, replacing an EV battery can cost more than the vehicle is worth, much in the same way a blown engine can make it cost prohibitive to repair a car. But there are companies remanufacturing hybrid battery packs, so it isn’t too far-fetched. In fact, you can order a remanufactured hybrid battery pack from your local NAPA Auto Parts store or NAPAonline.
Stay tuned to find out what the next EV battery technology breakthrough brings. There is no denying that electric vehicles are now a permanent part of our motoring world, and the NAPA experts are in the driver’s seat navigating this exciting adventure. Look no further than NAPAonline or your local store to find EV and hybrid batteries, as well as home EV battery chargers. Additionally, find help with your EV battery replacement at a NAPA Auto Care center near you.
Photo courtesy of Unsplash.
With an automotive writing career spanning over two decades, Brian has a passion for sharing the automotive lifestyle. An avid DIYer he can usually be found working on one of his many project cars. His current collection includes a 1969 Olds Delta 88 convertible, BMW E46 sedan, and a slant-6 powered 1975 Plymouth Duster.