A better battery for EVs?
The deficiencies of Li-ion batteries contribute to consumer doubts about EVs, but switching to a different type of technology could solve crucial problems. Richard Brown investigates
A long-range, lightweight, cost-efficient, recyclable and ethically sourced battery is, arguably, the Holy Grail of the EV market. Lithium-ion (Li-ion) batteries are currently the main focus of multibillion-dollar investments by OEMs and tier suppliers, but there are other contenders that could offer a breakthrough with alternative technology. One of them is the aluminium-air (Al-air) battery.
Trevor Jackson, an engineer and former officer in the UK’s Royal Navy, began experimenting with Al-air batteries in 2001 at his modest workshop in Callington, Cornwall. Although the Al-air battery was invented back in the 1960s, it was deemed unfit for commercial deployment due to its electrolyte being dangerously caustic and poisonous.
Jackson’s experiments led to the development of a new, safe electrolyte which he has even tasted in front of startled industry observers in order to prove its benign properties. He claims the battery can give an EV a 1,500-mile (2,400-kilometre) range. To put that in context, a Tesla Model S has an estimated range, from a single charge, of 370 miles. According to Jackson, swapping a standard Tesla Li-ion battery with an Al-air device of the same weight would produce a range of 2,700 miles.
Jackson’s invention, he claims, boasts nine times the energy density of a Li-ion battery of comparable weight, or four times its energy density in equivalent volume. It is also much smaller and so takes up less space in the chassis. Furthermore, the battery is claimed to be recyclable, replaceable, environmentally friendly and ethically sourced. Looking at the financial aspect, it works out at 1/7th the cost per kilowatt hour of a Li-ion battery.
The batteries are constructed from plastic, aluminium and a non-toxic, safe electrolyte. They can be air-freighted wet or dry and are not flammable – in stark contrast with Li-ion batteries, which are vulnerable to thermal runaway. They also cannot be short-circuited as there is no stored charge; they are a power source rather than an energy storage device, with the energy being derived from a chemical reaction from stable aluminium.
Jackson has got Al-air battery depletion covered, too. A discharged Al-air battery is simply replaced with a recycled one which could be sold at supermarkets and convenience stores; swapping an empty battery for a new, fully charged one would take about 90 seconds, he claims.
While rechargeable Li-ion batteries can cost tens of thousands of pounds to replace, Jackson says that ‘refuelling’ by swapping a drained Al-air battery for a recycled one at the end of its 1,500 mile range is infinitely cheaper. “You only pay for the miles you drive and you only pay seven pence per mile,” he states.
Jackson alleges that vested interests in the Li-ion battery industry are undermining his product. Given the vast market opportunity that EVs will present as the industry continues to move towards an electric future, battery technology is certainly an area worth fighting over. According to Bernstein Research, the global vehicle battery market is expected to increase to a value of $500 billion by 2050, with running costs set to fall to the level of petrol engines by as early as 2023.
A 2017 evaluation by the UK Trade and Investment agency lauded Jackson’s invention as a “very attractive battery” based on “well-established’” technology, and said that it produced much more energy per kilogram than standard EV types. Two French universities have also validated the battery.
Bolstering Jackson’s belief in Al-air are LG Chemical, Sanyo, Johnson Matthey, the UK Ministry of Defence’s Defence Science and Technology Laboratory and Southampton University, which are all helping to develop the technology. Acronic, Phinergy and Fuji Pigment are also exploring its potential industrial applications.
In April 2019 Métalectrique Research & Development (MAL), Jackson’s Plymouth-based company, secured a £104,000 ($137,000) grant from the UK’s Advanced Propulsion Centre (APC) to demonstrate this technology. APC, located at the University of Warwick, has since elevated the MAL research to ‘special project status’.
Moreover, Austin Electric, an Essex-based engineering firm and owner of the Austin Motor Company brand, has signed a multimillion-pound deal with Jackson to install thousands of his Al-air batteries into its EVs, starting this year. First to be fitted with Al-air batteries will be three-wheeled tuk-tuks – the small taxis popular in many Asian countries.
Danny Corcoran, Austin’s CEO, applauds the technology as having enormous advantages over traditional EV batteries and even suggests that its potency could trigger “the next industrial revolution”.
“We have an agreement to supply batteries for car conversions in UK. We also have an agreement to supply a communications battery into Nato via our defence partner. These are our immediate markets from established relationships,” explains Jackson.
Sustainability questions for Li-ion
Although EVs are supposed to be an answer to emission which harm the environment, Jackson suggests that Li-ion batteries do not score highly in terms of sustainability. He points out that they are generally recharged using fossil fuel, which simply shifts the CO2 emissions along the value chain from vehicle to power station.
“In short, recharging Li-ion or any other type of secondary battery does not really reduce CO2 and this policy is undermining the government’s drive towards zero emission,” he states.
A further charge levelled against Li-ion batteries is deficiency in terms of recyclability. “Recycling is problematic in terms of toxicity, cost and fire risk at recycling centres,” says Jackson. According to the World Economic Forum’s Global Battery Alliance, 11m tonnes of spent Li-ion batteries will end up as waste by 2030. In Europe, Friends of the Earth notes that only 5% of Li-ion batteries are recycled.
“Lithium is therefore in practice a limited resource and not really sustainable as an energy storage technology in the long term,” says Jackson. “Extraction of cobalt [a key material] is infamously done by children who suffer from respiratory diseases caused by cobalt. This is an ethical issue, clearly.”
Having trained as a mechanical engineer and worked in the pressurised water reactor industry, he says that the safety, operability and lifecycle aspects of any new technology remain deeply embedded in his thinking.
“In my opinion, lithium-ion technology would not have passed the initial safety assessments… I’ve been closely involved with over the last 30-plus years, nor, I suspect, would it have achieved even the old British Standards Kitemark compliance assessment which covered equipment intended for use by the public.”
The key component in the Al-air fuel cell is, of course, aluminium – the most abundant metal on the planet. “It is an established industry and the metal is fully recyclable using renewable energy. It is therefore a sustainable solution,” Jackson asserts. “The energy in the cycle bypasses the oil, gas and therefore traditional automotive industries.”
As for the science behind the invention, Youmin Rong, IHS Markit’s China-based senior analyst for clean technology and renewables in the Gas, Power and Energy Futures division, explains: “To pursue higher energy density, theoretically speaking, metal-air is the most ideal pair. This includes Li-air, Zn-air [zinc], Mg-air [manganese], Na-air [sodium] and Al-air, where Li-air is capable of providing the highest specific energy density followed by Al-air.”
He adds: “However, Li metal is very difficult to work with due to its highest reactivity. Nevertheless, aluminium is the most stable metal among all five candidates.”
Compared with batteries using lithium, nickel, manganese, cobalt or Li-ion phosphate as the cathode and graphite as the anode, Al-air uses metallic aluminium as the anode and air/oxygen as the cathode.
Rong describes in more detail the Al-air battery’s physical structure: “Al-air uses a different electrolyte system, which often leads to non-rechargeable characteristics. A growing number of studies have demonstrated the potential of rechargeable capabilities using aqueous, organic solvents and ionic-liquid-based electrolytes.”
Instead of having graphite as a physical anode contributing to the electrochemical reaction through the electrolyte, the cathode at ‘air’ side in the Al-air battery usually takes the form of catalytic materials and a current collector mesh for air to flow through.
Thierry Brousse, professor and vice-dean of the University of Nantes, who is also president of the evaluation committee for energy storage for the French National Research Agency, praised Jackson’s breakthrough.
He said: “The electrolyte that was used undoubtedly presents superior performance compared to standard NaCl [sodium chloride] electrolyte. Additionally, it allows the use of ordinary aluminium, it hinders side reactions, it limits the formation of gel as well as heat generation and subsequently allows steady and long-duration power.”
The use of such electrolyte, combined with the technology of MAL, would be an asset for implementation in various transport and stationary applications, according to Brousse.
In November 2019, industry news site CleanTechnica lent some weight to the argument in favour of Al-air when it stated that Li-ion, while still the leading battery technology, is probably not the universal solution of future energy storage technologies.
“Other technologies that are better suited for applications like long-duration energy storage, heavy trucking, aviation and EV fast-charging infrastructure will increasingly drive these emerging battery markets,” it said. “Savvy companies, governments and investors should explore and support these alternative battery technologies – not just lithium-ion – to accelerate and scale climate-critical solutions.”
Barriers to uptake
However, Rong at IHS says the technology is still at an early stage and that the major challenge lies with the air cathode. “The sluggish efficiency of the oxygen reduction reaction is the barrier for its application. Other problems include CO2 reaction with alkaline electrolyte producing carbonate precipitates, water evaporation to open air [electrolyte dry-out] and electrolyte penetration into the pores of the air cathode.”
Despite these technical drawbacks, Rong believes that Al-air should provide better specific energy density than Li-ion, though volumetric density may be challenging due to the air cathode. He also warns that, despite its promise, it is too early to make a judgement. “Its wider uptake needs further verification by end markets at system integration level, which is crucial to the economic success of this technology,” he states.
Perhaps this is informing the decision of EV battery manufacturers not to invest or explore the technology in any significant way at this time. In November 2019, for instance, Europe’s leading battery start-up, Sweden’s Northvolt, unveiled plans to produce 150 gigawatt hours of battery capacity by 2030, enough to power 2m Tesla cars. But Northvolt has not – yet – explored or embraced Al-air technology.
CATL, the world’s largest producer of EV batteries, with clients including BMW and Daimler, is still a Li-ion stalwart. This could be significant, because almost half of all battery and plug-in hybrid vehicles sold today are bought in China.
“None of the major companies are working on this at the moment,” Rong confirms. “The reason is, it is a complete system and requires a set of very different manufacturing procedures and equipment. Given the capacity scale of today, it is expensive to invest in one single technology that is very different from the existing [one].”
Leading EV manufacturers approached by Automotive Logistics either declined requests to comment on the prospects of Al-air fuel cell technology or did not respond to enquiries. Among the OEMs, Volkswagen said it does not comment on any technology still under development, while Toyota stated that its R&D experts in Japan were not in a position to answer questions.