Innovation Drives Down the Cost of Powering Electric Cars

Americans are increasingly buying electric cars. Electrochemists and their innovations will drive down the cost of powering them.


Americans purchased more than 500,000 fully electric vehicles in the first three quarters of 2022, accounting for more than 6 percent of all U.S. vehicle sales. The Biden administration wants that number to exceed 50 percent domestically, and the International Energy Agency projects it to exceeed 60 percent globally by 2030. But getting those cars on the road—and storing increasing amounts of intermittent energy generated by solar panels, hydro plants, and wind turbines—would require a lot of lithium-ion batteries.

With current technology and lithium resources, that would be a daunting challenge. But ongoing battery innovation promises to address the gap.

Lithium prices rose from around $5,000 per ton in 2010 nominal dollars to more than $74,000 per ton in 2022. At the 2019 mining rate, according to a 2022 study by Simon Michaux, a professor at the Geological Survey of Finland, it would take more than 9,000 years to produce enough lithium to completely phase out all use of fossil fuels. Michaux also concluded that global reserves of other metals needed to replace fossil fuels—copper, nickel, cobalt, graphite, and vanadium—are "nowhere near adequate."

Michaux's neo-Malthusian projections did not take into account the creativity of inventors and entrepreneurs. Electrochemists are already addressing the shortfalls he described, and their work will drive down the cost of powering electric vehicles.

Natron Energy in the U.S. and CATL in China are working on sodium-ion batteries. At $960 per ton, sodium hydroxide is much cheaper than lithium. In 2022, CATL announced that its next generation of sodium-ion batteries will reach an energy density of 200 watt-hours per kilogram, which compares well with the 220 watt-hours per kilogram of current lithium-ion batteries. CATL's sodium-ion batteries could be as much as 75 percent cheaper per kilowatt-hour than lithium-ion batteries.

While sodium-ion batteries weigh more, CATL says they will charge in just 15 minutes, last through 3,000 charge cycles, and work well in the cold and heat. Lithium-ion batteries take 30 minutes to charge, last 1,500 cycles, and do not perform well in cold or heat.

What about storing energy for utilities? Form Energy in Somerville, Massachusetts, has developed a gigantic iron-air battery that it says can store more than 100 hours of solar and wind electricity. To discharge energy, oxygen entering the battery produces hydroxide ions that rust the iron pellets, sending electrons to the circuit. Recharging reverses the process, turning rust back into metal and releasing oxygen bubbles. The company projects that its battery packs will cost less than $20 per kilowatt-hour, making them competitive with legacy power plants.