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Observations

Opinion, arguments & analyses from the editors of Scientific American

Lithium ion battery sales set to rev up thanks mainly to e-bikes and scooters

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scooter, e-bike,lithium ion, ChinaInterest in electric vehicles (EVs) and plug-in hybrids has come on strong over the past year or so, pushed relentlessly by carmakers promoting a newer, greener generation of transportation. As the Chevy Volt, Ford Transit Connect Electric, Nissan Leaf and others trickle out into the marketplace over the next year, it's clear that they will go only as far as their lithium ion batteries can take them (which right now isn't all that far).


Help may be on the way, per a report released earlier this month by Boston's Lux Research projecting a massive wave in spending on energy storage technologies over the next five years. More specifically, the firm predicts the market for batteries, supercapacitors and fuel cells for transportation as well as storage, distributed generation, and transmission and distribution technologies for the power grid will more than double from $21.4 billion in 2010 to $44.4 billion in 2015.


The market for electric vehicle energy storage technology will nearly double from $7.7 billion this year to $14.5 billion in 2015, and batteries will be a major part of this growth. Surprisingly, electronic bikes (e-bikes) and scooters, as opposed to plug-in hybrids and EVs, will drive the biggest growth for vehicle batteries in the next five years, lead author and analyst Jacob Grose said in a press release. Sales of e-bike and scooter batteries are expected to surge from $6.4 billion in 2010 to $10.9 billion five years from now.


Whereas lead-acid batteries are most common today in transportation devices (they're found in 93 percent of China's e-bikes, for example), demand for lithium ion batteries will grow nearly three times faster than for lead-acid moving forward.


That's good news for those interested in buying a plug-in hybrid or EV because lithium ion battery performance will need to improve rapidly to make these vehicles appealing to all but the most hardcore greenies. Chevy says the first-generation Volt (a gas/electric hybrid) will travel about 65 kilometers on a fully charged battery before the gas engine kicks in. The Transit Connect Electric and Leaf (both fully electric) are expected to run for about 130 kilometers and 160 kilometers, respectively, on a full battery.


The truth, however, is that no one really knows exactly how long these batteries will last in real-world driving conditions, when air conditioning, portable GPS units and other electrical devices are competing with the motor for battery juice. Nor do the car companies know how much a battery's performance will degrade over time, after it's been charged and recharged hundreds of times. With most of these vehicles taking anywhere from four to eight hours to fully re-charge (at least until there is a fast-charging infrastructure), some in the auto industry admit that fully-electric vehicles might be better suited as a family's second car, the one that runs around town as opposed to the primary vehicle gets its owners to and from work in the suburbs.


To change this, money needs to go to research that can improve lithium ion batteries' ability to rapidly charge and discharge as well as stay safe under intense operating conditions, all while lowering the costs of the batteries.


Image of a typical scooter in China ©iStockphoto.com/ John Romans

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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