Chemists are in the driving seat of electric vehicle development

Global sales of electric vehicles (EVs) are on the rise, and will most likely keep on rising for the foreseeable future. Many governments are using a mixture of “carrots” (such as tax breaks and subsidies) and “sticks” (such as prospective bans on the sale of petrol and diesel fuelled cars) to encourage consumers to buy EVs.

At the centre of any EV is the battery pack, the collection of battery cells used to power the vehicle. Lithium-ion (Li-ion) batteries are almost certain to be used in the overwhelming majority of EVs, and for good reason. The technology has been used extensively in non-EV applications for several decades and is well-understood. This would usually suggest that there is little room for invention or innovation, but in fact the opposite is true. The cost of Li-ion battery packs is currently still too high, above the often-quoted $100/kWh threshold, and vehicle range is currently low compared to petrol or diesel-fuelled vehicles. Given these outstanding problems, the need to build supply chains local to the car manufacturers, and the need to recover and recycle materials at end-of-life, there are huge opportunities for innovative chemists to develop new solutions and for those solutions to be implemented in EVs.

For example, cathodes of Li-ion batteries are usually made from lithium metal oxides containing cobalt. Given concerns about the availability of cobalt, there are drivers to move away from the use of cobalt. Tesla announced recently that it was moving to the use of cobalt-free lithium nickel oxide, lithium nickel manganese oxide and lithium iron phosphate cathode materials, with the choice of cathode material depending on the particular EV with which the battery would be used. This use of three possible cathode materials highlights that no one particular chemistry has become an industry standard.

Anodes for Li-ion materials are usually made from graphite, but graphite is not a perfect anode material. Silicon has a far greater capacity than graphite to bond with lithium and is potentially far cheaper than graphite, but swells when lithium interacts with it, which is obviously undesirable. Many solutions have been offered to facilitate the use of silicon in anodes. Alternatively, lithium metal itself is a high energy density option for anodes in solid state batteries. There seems to be plenty of room for development of innovative anode materials.

Further technological opportunities exist in the development of Li-ion technology, such as the development of other battery components (such as electrolyte, lithium salt, solvents, additives and mixtures of additives), finding methods of enabling “dry” manufacture of the batteries, developing methods of refurbishing batteries for second use, and further developing methods of recycling or otherwise processing used batteries. This is causing activity across the chemical supply chain, from advanced polymer manufacturing to developing new lithium mines.

The pace of innovation is increasing in the scramble to meet the required timescale for the move to EVs. A recent joint study by the European Patent Office and the International Energy Agency found that between 2005 and 2018 patenting activity in batteries and electricity storage technology grew at an average annual rate of 14% worldwide, four times faster than the average for all technologies, and that the rise in innovation was chiefly driven by developments in Li-ion batteries. Although the study found that Asia has a strong lead, concerted efforts are now being made in Europe and the US to catch up.

It is therefore clear that there are many opportunities for developments to be made by innovative chemists. Such developments can be protected by filing patent applications. For example, patents can protect new materials, uses of those materials in a Li-ion battery, methods of making those new materials, cell components (such as electrodes) comprising those new materials, methods of making those cell components, and cells and batteries comprising those new materials. Having a patent not only gives enforceable rights to stop others using the invention, but also turns an intangible idea into an item of property that can be traded, valued, used as an asset to raise finance, licenced or even simply made available for others to share.

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