How do EV batteries actually work?

Lithium-ion batteries, also found in smartphones, power the majority of electric vehicles. Lithium is highly reactive, and batteries manufactured from it can hold high voltages and an exceptional charge, creating a dense, efficient form of energy storage. These batteries are expected to remain dominant in electric vehicles for the foreseeable future through reduced costs and improved performance.

Right now, electric vehicle batteries typically weigh around 1,000 pounds, cost about $15,000 to produceand have enough strength to run a typical house in a few days. Although their charging capacity degrades over time, they should last 10 to 20 years.

Each battery is a dense collection of hundreds or even thousands of slightly pasty lithium-ion electrochemical cells, often shaped like cylinders or bags. Each cell consists of a cathode (usually containing metal oxides made of nickel, manganese and cobalt); a cathode, based on graphite; and a liquid solution in between, called the electrolyte.

This is where lithium’s reactivity comes into play; Its loosely held outer electron can easily be detached, leaving a lithium ion (its outer electron-removing atom). Basically, the cell works by moving these ions and electrons back and forth.

During the charge cycle, an electric current is introduced through an external source that separates the electrons from the lithium atoms at the cathode. Electrons flow around an external circuit to the anode—usually consisting of graphite, an inexpensive, energy-rich and durable material with superior energy storage capacity—while the lithium atoms become ionized. The chemical flows to the anode through the electrolyte and is fused with their electrons. During the discharge cycle, the process is reversed. The lithium atoms at the anode are separated from their electrons; ions pass through the electrolyte; and electrons flow through the external circuit, powering the motor.

The expansion of electric vehicles has created huge demand for the minerals needed to make batteries. The price of lithium carbonate, the compound from which lithium is extracted, relatively stable from 2010 to 2020 but increasing nearly 10 times from 2020 to 2022, promoting new investment globally. More than a dozen battery plants and potential mining projects are under development in the United States alone.

But finding raw materials comes with great environmental, political and social costs.

The majority of cobalt, a common cathode ingredient, comes from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, best known for its children and forced labor. Much of the U.S. raw material supply is on tribal land. Chile, the main producer of lithium, wants gain control of production from multinational companies. Meanwhile, mining companies and entrepreneurs plan to extract minerals from the seabed, which could harm a fragile, poorly understood ecosystem (Chile is pushing for a ban on mining). such ocean waterfall).

Battery developers seek to cut down on the use of rare metals and improve recyclability. Startups and automakers are also racing to design and build next-generation batteries that eliminate material challenges and increase efficiency. For example, a new generation of lithium-ion batteries has eliminated the use of cobalt. The scientists also tested sodium-sulfur batteries, which are made from much cheaper and more abundant raw materials, and solid-state batteries that, as the name suggests, replace liquid electrolytes with solid compounds. They may offer a lighter, more stable and faster charging alternative.

The forecast is that Electric vehicles will achieve parity with cars based on internal combustion engines in just a few years, driving adoption. And experts predict rapid expansion, consolidation and testing in battery manufacturing as countries and companies race for a place among more than a dozen dominant industry players. The small trips between ions between the cathode and anode of battery cells are likely to become one of the most important of the next decade.

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