Carnegie Mellon: Bigger may not be better with battery makers

Carnegie wondering if money would be better spent on more and better battery research

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A section of a Chevrolet Volt lithium-ion battery pack.

Credit: Reuters

Interesting research here from Carnegie Mellon University researchers that says when it comes to lowering the cost of batteries for cars, developing mass production factories for their fabrication might not achieve lower costs as predicted.

 "Electric vehicle batteries are expensive. Federal and state governments have been subsidizing and mandating electric vehicle sales for years with the idea that increasing production volume will reduce costs and make these vehicles viable for mainstream consumers." Professor of Engineering and Public Policy and Mechanical Engineering Jeremy Michalek, said in a statement about the Carnegie study appearing in the Journal of Power Sources this week.

+More on Network World: What now for lithium ion technology?+

The study says “economies of scale in battery manufacturing are reached quickly at a production volume of ∼200–300 MWh annually. That's comparable to the amount of batteries produced for the Nissan Leaf or the Chevy Volt last year," Michalek said. "Past this point, higher volume alone won't do much to cut cost."

 Increased volume does little to reduce unit costs, except potentially indirectly through factors such as experience, learning, and innovation, the researchers stated.

 The idea behind most battery investments has been that the cost savings will come from spreading the cost of expensive equipment, facilities and other investments over a large number of units produced, reducing the cost for each unit, the researchers stated.

 The group pointed to Tesla’s planned $5 billion “Gigafactory “ which could produce more than 35 gigawatt hours of battery cells each year but has as one of its main goals to reduce costs by making tons of batteries. Tesla and its partner Panasonic say the factory could reduce battery pack costs by 30% by 2017.

 The researchers also pointed out that the government also spends lots of money trying to increase the production of lithium ion batteries. Lawmakers, such as Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, as well as President Barack Obama have called for increased tax incentives for electric vehicle sales, the researchers stated.

 "Our results raise questions about whether increasing vehicle sales is the best way to continue to spend limited resources — as opposed to, say, more research on battery technology. For example, we estimate that finding a way to make batteries with thicker electrodes could lower the cost of long-range electric vehicle batteries by as much as 8%, while increasing production beyond current levels may only cut costs by less than 3%," said Associate Professor of Engineering and Public Policy and Materials Science Jay Whitacre.

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